Waxahatchee and Hurray for the Riff Raff fill First Ave with all the feelings

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Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff and Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee. Tony Nelson

Alynda Segarra and Katie Crutchfield have very different stage presences.

Segarra, the studious folkie turned footloose rocker who fronts Hurray for the Riff Raff, brought a defiant political edge to her First Avenue set last night; commanding the stage from behind her gorgeous blonde archtop guitar, she was an even more dynamic figure (and a real cool dancer) when she set it aside.

Crutchfield, whose alter ego/band Waxahatchee co-headlined, enveloped the room with her voice, a powerful instrument that’s somehow most soothing when it’s most serrated and most unsettling in its smoothest moments. When I say both performances were intense and nuanced, well, that just shows how much ground those two adjectives can cover.

“I’m gonna be honest,” Segarra said after opening with “The Navigator,” the title track of HFTRR’s latest album. “Right before I got on stage, I stepped in gum. I like to think that’s good luck.” Throughout the night, her casual Bronx irreverence bolstered rather than undercut the seriousness of her political and emotional commitment, as when she introduced “Hungry Ghost” with a breezy “This one’s for all the queers.”

Hurray for the Riff Raff’s increasingly electrified sound highlights how one-dimensional so much “Americana” (or “roots-rock”) (or however you want to market and scare-quote traditionalist guitar-based music) can be. Jagged, chromatic guitar runs referenced a slew of Latin styles while the band moved comfortably from the country shuffle “Life to Save” to the Tex-Mex organ riffs and pause-then-sprint drum fills of “Lake of Fire” to “Just the Way You Are,” an elegant yet gently frayed slow dance with a sneaky bite to it, like the spiked punch at ’50s prom.

Segarra was stylishly dressed-down in all denim, a fist clenching a Puerto Rican flag on the back of her jean jacket, splashes of Ziggy Stardust glitter makeup around her eyes and blonde-streaked dark hair adding a glam twist. It was a look that perfectly summed up her mix of no-nonsense righteousness and playful identity experimentation. I could hear traces of the critically celebrated ’80s folkie Michelle Shocked in the way Segarra’s drawn out syllables snap shut at the end of a line (because I’m old), but Segarra’s style is so much her own that she was nearly done for the night before I could pin down the similarity.

But for all its rootedness in the past, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s set was powerfully of the moment. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the lyric “They left us to die/ On Rican Beach” took on a resonance Segarra couldn’t have predicted when she wrote it last year, and she declaimed a new song, “Kids Who’ll Die,” with an incantatory fire worthy of the young people it celebrated. By the time Segarra raised a fist overhead at the climax of the anthem of defiance and reassurance “Pa’lante,” the banner reading “We’re All in This Together” that hung behind the band almost felt redundant: The performance had already brought that sentiment to life.

Waxahatchee’s set began with the slow build of “Recite Remorse,” Katie Crutchfield’s voice floating over her twin sister Allison’s drawn-out keyboard chords for the first verse, crisp bass and guitar creeping underneath for the second, the full band climatically clanging into gear for the third.

The Crutchfields are Alabaman transplants who’ve been the godmothers of a Northeast corridor indie-rock revival for what seems like an impossibly long time now, considering that they’re only 29; their voices share a smoky grain that feels rural and southern despite an absence of drawl or twang, and when they harmonize their “oohs” are nearly as eloquent as Katie’s most thought-through lyrics. Many of the set’s strongest moments were its quietest: “A Little More” was performed essentially as a duet; and “La Loose,” recorded as a kind of bedroom synthpop act, was slowed, solo, and acoustic tonight, as Katie proved herself among the few singers who can pull off the emotional oneupswomanship of “I know I feel more than you do.”

In fact, though the newest Waxhatchee album, Out in the Storm, has a touch more alt-rock oomph than its predecessors, the band didn’t always match the punch of the recordings. Part of what made the chorus of “Never Been Wrong” one of the 2017’s most thrilling rock moments was the way the music comes crashing back in midway through Crutchfield’s unaccompanied “Everyone will hear me complain.” Last night, Waxahatchee didn’t quite stick the landing.

But that’s a quibble, because the strength of Crutchfield’s songwriting rang out regardless. She’s been reluctant to call Out in the Storm a breakup album, and that category, which simplistically implies that relationships have an on/off switch, is in fact a little too neat for the emotional process she captures. These are songs of disentanglement and reorientation that double back into memory and regret rather than proceeding forward, the figure of the former lover a consistent physical, psychological presence that Crutchfield confronts, backs away from, and examines from multiple angles to better understand herself. That’s a lot to go through in public, for an artist or for an audience.

For an encore, Crutchfield returned to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar to perform “Fade.” The closing track on Out in the Storm, this aching ellipsis of a goodbye ended the evening as ambivalently it does the album, with the final repetition of “I’m fading, fading away” offering uncertainty rather than closure.

Click here to see a photo slideshow of Hurray for the Riff Raff and Waxahatchee at First Ave

Hurray for the Riff Raff setlist
The Navigator
Life to Save
Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl
Hungry Ghost
Rican Beach
Kids Who’ll Die
Lake of Fire
Just the Way You Are
Settle
Living in the City
Pa’lante

Waxahatchee setlist
Recite Remorse
Silver
Poison
Misery Over Dispute
8 Ball
The Dirt
Sparks Fly
Never Been Wrong
Swan Dive
A Little More
Coast to Coast
No Question
Peace and Quiet
La Loose
Under a Rock
Fade


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