It was weird watching Scout frontwoman Ashen Keilyn sing without her guitar – before her low-key acoustic gig Monday at the Rockwood, did she ever do a show without it? In a lot of ways, that old brown Gibson defines her, the way she’ll casually jangle through a verse before kicking in hard on the chorus, sometimes letting just the hint of a rasp into her voice. But on Monday she didn’t need the axe: watching her get torchy and nuanced, swaying confidently behind the mic, was a quietly potent reminder of what an unselfconsciously excellent, subtle singer she is.
It was just as incongruous watching Hurricane Bells’ Steve Schiltz, one of this city’s masters of artsy guitar texture and shade, playing unadorned, simple chords and broken chords on an acoustic, occasionally in tandem with the simple beat looping out from inside Keilyn’s Omnichord. But it worked perfectly: the simplicity of what the two were doing made the hooks in Keilyn’s songwriting seem stronger than ever. The set was a mix of old goodies and new treats. Scout’s selling point throughout their career, irrespective of whoever might have been in the band at a particular time, has always been a relentless unease, juxtaposing unresolved indie angst against purist pop or garage rock hookiness. The opening track was a perfect example, an older song that followed the band’s early, Nirvanaesque formula of mellow verse/explosive chorus. “Now I know my ways always cause harm,” Keilyn fretted against Schiltz’s spiky picking.
The second song plaintively set the scene at some lame party, “My heart stuck in a splint, so close to calling it quits,” Keilyn sang, hinting at but never reaching a fullscale wail. Please Excuse Me, from Scout’s recently released Pi ep, was reinvented as a tense shuffle; they followed that with Always Waiting,the most wistful number of the night. “I wonder what’s become of us, what’s become of me,” Keilyn brooded.
Even a false start couldn’t stop the two’s energetically pissed-off cover of Guided by Voices’ Game of Pricks, which contrasted mightily with the plaintive, imploring vibe of First in Line. They closed with a big, anthemic concert favorite from the old days, Won’t Ask Why (from the band’s classic 2000 It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time album), and then an apprehensively steady, stripped-down version of Under Attack, the standout original on the new ep. For a band that depends as much on guitar as Scout always has, you wouldn’t think that this would been such a great show, but it was. And as the early afterwork crowd filtered in, people were openly hoping for a later set time the next time the band does something like this.