By: Alyssa Murphree, February 22, 2017
On Friday, February 17, the queercore, garage punk duo PWR BTTM blessed the City of Brotherly Love with their presence once again before a sold-out crowd at PhilaMOCA. This being my second time seeing them live, I had a general idea of what to expect, but nonetheless, they never fail to blow me away, not only with their musical talent, but the witty onstage banter that makes every show unique and the post-concert emotional high I experience that lingers for days on end. A PWR BTTM show is a concert, stand-up comedy act, and a spiritual awakening all at once.
PWR BTTM is comprised of Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, who formed the band in 2013 while studying at Bard College in upstate New York. They released their debut album Ugly Cherries in 2015 and are set to drop their second, Pageant this May. The two queer identifying musicians each write songs for the band and sing their own compositions, which leads to them switching roles as lead vocalist/guitarist and drummer/backup vocalist multiple times during their set. Their songs are highly regarded for their “#relatable” and in a way, revolutionary lyrical content which includes topics such as gender identity, standing up for yourself, falling in love at Dairy Queen, and boys who don’t text back. And while their band name might incite laughter and some discomfort, don’t be fooled, these two are the real deal and a force to be reckoned with when it comes to their guitar fueled tracks.
So here’s how a PWR BTTM show works. First of all, you can show up wearing whatever in the world you want and nobody judges you. Metallic leggings? Go for it? Flower crowns? Hell yeah. The jeans and t-shirt ensemble you wear every day? If that’s what you’re comfortable with then yes. Glitter beards/eyebrows/everything? Encouraged. PWR BTTM utilizes drag as part of their performance aesthetic and each band member possesses a colorful wardrobe of thrift store dresses that would put your eccentric aunt to shame. As for makeup, Ben’s face is haphazardly smeared with glitter and paint, while Liv goes with a classic bold lipstick.
While PWR BTTM encourages self-authenticity and expression, they are also adamant that their shows remain a safe space for everybody in attendance. Before they began playing, Ben took to the mic to enforce that no moshing would be tolerated and that if anybody was being harassed or felt unsafe, that they brought it to the attention of the band. PWR BTTM is also known for requesting on their tour rider that every venue provides gender-neutral restrooms for their shows, a tradition that began in the wake of North Carolina’s controversial HB2 ruling.
Before PWR BTTM took the stage, the two opening acts, Naked Giants, a band from Seattle on the east coast for the first time, and Mal Blum and the Blums, a well-seasoned gang with three albums under their belt, warmed up the crowd with some intense drum solos and guitar shredding that melted our faces off. The three bands would often interact during each other’s sets, which eventually led to Mal Blum and PWR BTTM playfully naming the tour the “Queer Thirst Love Tour”.
PWR BTTM began their set with the famous guitar riff of “Ugly Cherries”, one of their most popular songs and the namesake of their first album. Among other old favorites played over the course of the night were “Serving Goffman”, “West Texas”, “C U Around”, and “I Wanna Boi”.
With the name and release date of their new album being announced only three days prior, excitement (and glitter) littered the atmosphere as new, unreleased songs were incorporated into the setlist. This excitement was especially evident for the new song in which a music video was also released for, “Big Beautiful Day”, which takes a stab at toxic masculinity in the form of an anthem designed to have you revel in self-empowerment and leave your haters in the dust.
Other songs such as “Answer My Text”, were more blunt in their message, with the chorus consisting of Liv woefully yelling “ANSWER MY TEXT, YOU DICK!”. But some were more poignant, such as “Silly”, a song that challenged Ben to reclaim a word that had been used against him for most of his life and “Sissy” in which Liv expresses their disdain with growing up in a heavily gendered society.
A new feature of this PWR BTTM tour is an expanded band. While the band is comprised of only two regular members, they do bring an accompanying bassist along on tour. This time around however, they more or less resembled the Partridge Family, with not only Ben, Liv, and the bassist in tow, but their friend Cameron, on keys and French horn, and Chris Hopkins (aka, Ben’s mom), who provided backing vocals on some new songs. At one point, Ben poked fun at Cameron for showing up to play at their last Philadelphia show in a full tuxedo after performing at Carnegie Hall earlier that day. But fear not, as the gang made sure he was dressed for the occasion this time, wearing attire a bit more casual and decked out in eye makeup and a drawing of a house on his forehead for whatever reason, done in lipstick of course. Ben’s mom was quite the crowd pleaser with her operatic vocals and overall mom-like innocence as her kid viciously belted into a microphone only a mere ten feet away. At one point, she addressed the crowd on behalf of all parents who try very hard, but occasionally make mistakes when it comes to using gender neutral pronouns, in which one boisterous audience member yelled “A for effort!” from the back in response.
PWR BTTM represents being unapologetically queer, but they also represent resilience during this climate of political uncertainty in America. On tour last year, they arrived to a venue in Jackson, Mississippi to find radical Christian picketers protesting their show, and on the day we found out the results of the presidential election, their tour van containing all of their instruments and gear was stolen in San Francisco.
As PWR BTTM began their set, I felt some people shuffling to my left. When I glanced over, I noticed that two little girls, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and their mothers had made their way to the front row and directly next to me. The girls were wearing homemade t-shirts decorated with iron-on unicorns and “PWR BTTM” written in glittery fabric paint. PWR BTTM later posted a photo of the two on their social media and commenters unanimously agreed that these girls were, and gave them hope for the future. In a world so riddled with hate and judgement that children are often influenced by around that age, they gave me hope too.
To PWR BTTM, their fans are their friends, and this was evident from the moment I approached Ben after the show and he immediately opened his arms for a hug and thanked me for coming. With PhilaMOCA being such an intimate venue with a capacity of about 150 people, it’s less intimidating to ease into conversation with other concert goers, chat with other people like you who attended solo, and you begin to recognize people you’ve seen at previous shows. Something that will stick with me for a long time, and what encapsulates the spirit of PWR BTTM, is what Liv said at the beginning of their set, which is “the most radical thing you can do at a punk show is make friends”.