Show Review: The Coathangers, Big Bite, and Sixteen Jackies at Underground Arts in Philadelphia

Words by Brian O’Neill | Photos by Tashina Byrd

Joey Demarco is wearing a lovely dress, with sparkling bodice and tiered skirt, under an army surplus jacket. It accentuated his full beard nicely. His bandmates don’t share his flair for dramatic fashion, but locals Sixteen Jackies do a compelling job of approximating David Bowie’s more quirky songcraft within a twitchy, modern indie pop muse.

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Although Big Bite gets called post-grunge heroes who approximate the Wipers, this likely is territorial pissings due to their Pacific Northwest home. While guitarist/vocalist Matt Berry likely knows a sweet Greg Sage riff when he repurposes it, there’s a lot more of Sonic Youth’s dissonant take on punk within their sound. Specifically they draw upon the likes of Daydream Nation or Goo where one could imagine a world where Thurston Moore’s crew was a pop band. This also explains the Nirvana comparisons since they made it safe for a dissonant punk band to be a pop band.

It would have been nice had his vocals been more prominent in the mix, though that kind of fits in with production on last year’s eponymous debut. So maybe it’s an aesthetic choice.

The second coolest thing about Big Bite was how they made down-tuned punk-inspired music so damn catchy. The coolest was that bassist Erica Miller’s grandmother was in the front of the pit, meaning her granny is probably cooler than you are.

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Within just a few songs it was clear that you could take The Coathangers out of the garage but you couldn’t take the garage out of The Coathangers. Kicking off with “Lithium,” Julia Kugel-Montoya delicately sang while accompanied only by the strum of her clean guitar; that and the matching glittering dresses would be out of place in all but the most austere of garages. Then “Watch Your Back,” led by Meredith Franco’s snaking, surf music-inspired bass line and “5 Farms” where drummer Stephanie Luke’s deeper voice took the lead, showed where they came from.

The band is at their best when both vocalists share the spotlight. “Bimbo” takes the word back while alternating between Kugel-Montoya’s twee verses and Luke’s pop-punk chorus. During “Stranger Danger” they reverse roles as the guitarist’s breathy chorus contrasts the drummer’s hoarse rasp and the song seductively slithers along, following both of their leads.

Although there are sublime melodies that weave beneath even the more sibylline fare, when the band plays “Fuck the NRA,” it gave the female-heavy crowd license to scream along with a chorus as infectious as it was politically expedient. It also showed most obviously the fundamental change in The Coathangers in recent years, as they transitioned from whimsical songs into ones with more profound substance.

It’s therefore not a shock that the band played nearly all of the new album The Devil You Know, including “Hey Buddy,” which touches on women’s and trans issues, and “Step Back,” a song for those struggling with addition, which segued almost medley-style into “Last Call.”

The band ended the set by stepping back into the formative days of the Atlanta group. The singers changed their instruments for “Shut Up” without breaking a sweat and returned to their normal homes for “Cheap Cheap,” the only song played from either of their first two albums. They closed the set with “Squeeze Tiki” one of the few songs in pop music history to feature a squeeze toy solo, before being forced into an actually unplanned encore.

There were a few constants whether the band was rekindling simpler times spent in Atlanta garages or providing first-person takes on sociopolitical issues: The band have always been great songwriters and they have a lot of fun playing all of them. This is why The Coathangers are the best garage rock band around today and you don’t need a garage to see why.

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