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About a hundred people sat at tables for the intimate show Perfume Genius would put on at Johnny D’s in Sommerville, although it felt more like fifty people in the room because of how close we were to one another. The stage sat in the center surrounded by brick walls, neon signs, and an older crowd that sat respectful and upright the whole night, applauding kindly but with fevered interest.
Dusted took the stage first to start the evening off with a sound that could easily be labled as shoegaze with their minimal sound. ”This is a pumpkin brew with some cinnamon on top and some spice… It’s kindof a rugged drink, I think,” said Dusted frontman Brian Borcherdt. The pumpkin spice drink, much like the cold October day it had already been all afternoon, set the feeling of fall. Dusted brought lo-fi, sad songs that bit like fall music always seems to, as if it’s the last song on a mixtape mourning a break-up.
Fall often signifies the beginning of layers and layers of clothing — either to keep in the memories or to shield yourself from them. So it only seemed appropriate for Perfume Genius frontman Mike Hadreas to walk onstage in a sweater so large that it drooped off his shoulders as he played the keyboard opening to “AWOL Marine”, the opening track off his newest album, Put Your Back N 2 It. Keys that began sweetly were soon joined by a thin synthesizer note that cupped its hands around the music, giving it enough support to pick up and take flight. Drums came in, cymbals shook, and the song grew into a full-flighted bird — the first of many to appear that night.
Hadreas was bashful but not shy, calm but not emotionless, quiet but not powerless. Whether it be the haunting piano on “Look Out Look Out” or the mock happiness in “Take Me Home”, Perfume Genius displayed talent too massive for the venue.
“Ooof, you okay?” he said after a loud pop came from his guitar’s speaker. The technical difficulties meant they skipped “Normal Song”, which would later make an appearance in the encore, and moved on to a powerful version of “Take Me Home” without even batting an eye. Clearly the mood of the performance was a higher priority than the song order.
A personal highlight was “Dark Parts”, where the piano comes across like layers of rippling water, reminiscent of Patrick Watson’s “Drifters”; that is until a tambourine smash and quiet piano segment bring it to a close.
“This is odd. I’m not used to being able to sing and smell nachos at the same time,” he laughed, commenting on the setup of the venue. His banter with the crowd continued to get smiles from the audience all night, particularly when he admitted making an error. ”Did you hear me hit the wrong note there?” he smiled. “Sometimes I just get too emotional. Or I’ll just stop playing and put my hands up.” The crowd laughed and he stood up to then play a relaxing (and almost Enya-like) “Floating Spit’.
Joined on the keyboard by boyfriend and synthesizer player Alan Wyffels, Hadreas literally had to scoot over to make room before the two played “Learning”. Based on sound alone the song is somewhat quaint, but the lyrics, which speak of a rape incident, change it to an incredibly tragic and upsetting tone.
“We have two more songs, then I’m going to duck for 20 seconds, then pop up for three more songs,” said Hadreas, getting a big laugh from the crowd. A breathtaking version of the already breaktaking “Dreeem” was followed by Perfume Genius’ big hit, “Hood”, which truly excelled live due to focused drumming that formed a strong backbone.
Hadreas did not turn on his word. He literally stood up, walked towards the synth, and ducked behind it, twirling the edge of his ear. He then returned to his seat with a bashful smile and a cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless”. Now that the amp was fixed, Perfume Genius performed “Normal Song”, taking an acoustic turn that was sad in a more gentle and soothing way.
The entire performance closed with “Katie”. Once again solo onstage, Hadreas’s piano hit notes so low that they vibrated through the air with the resonance of a bass guitar, along with the soft bells of a church’s morning service. Perfume Genius gave the audience a different meaning to the word “haunting” than October normally brings, and as Hadreas gave the audience a wave, picked up his droopy sweater, and floated through the seated crowd toward the back of the venue, we all could not have been more satisfied with it.