Having to overpower a boisterous band playing in a different part of the venue makes for an ideal setting for a punk rock group. Unfortunately, it also makes for a nightmarish forum for a singer-songwriter, which is why indie-rock icon Sarah Dougher was visibly rattled when she discovered that she’d have to deliver her subtle songs while Parlay’s Ernie Locke shook his tailfeather overhead. “We’re just a quiet little combo,” Dougher protested in vain, but without much more complaint, she soldiered on to the delight of the dozen or so eager patrons sitting in a semicircle on El Torreon’s concrete floor.
Perhaps still annoyed while delivering their first few songs, Dougher and guitarist Jon Reuter seemed to hold back, with neither showing much emotion and Dougher delivering her vocals with cautious restraint. During an interlude between songs, the racket upstairs rose to a crescendo, and Dougher struck a rock-star pose, bringing a smile to her face and eliciting laughter from her fans. Soon, she loosened up, unleashing the full strength of her voice on such songs as the elegantly powerful title track to her latest release, The Walls Ablaze, and another tune from the same record, “The New Carissa.” While Reuter tapped out intricate melodies, Dougher’s riffs gave each song a solid spine, and her singing drifted sweetly above the dual-guitar interaction. Dougher’s last few stirring selections proved she had tuned out all undesirable background noise; she appeared intensely focused while belting out her lines. Like Cat Power and Tara Jane O’Neil, both of whom had to contend with unruly barroom crowds, Dougher was out of her element. Unlike the other two, whose extreme discomfort proved contagious, she was unrattled enough to eventually step into her zone and deliver a consistent, confident set. With any justice, Dougher will be rewarded for her patience with a gig at, say, the Westport Coffee House the next time she’s in town.
The best match of artist and venue occurred when reigning punk goddesses Sister Mary Rotten Crotch took the stage for one explosive song, with equipment on loan from opening act Lushbox. However, singer-guitarist Brianne Grimmer and company were also an appropriate fit for El Torreon’s hallowed halls, as the band ripped through selections from its debut EP, Despues de la Operacion Sere Una Nina, and unveiled such tasty numbers as “Stephen on the Short Bus” from its upcoming release, I Hate This Bus. With her commanding stance, emphatic backup vocals, and flair for stage banter, bassist Brit has developed frontwoman-caliber stage presence. Manic drummer Wil Plunkett, nodding constantly as if vigorously denying a charge while his pinkish hair whipped him mercilessly in the face throughout the night, attracts more slack-jawed stares than a car crash, and apparently even his bandmates can’t help but gawk — guitarist Brad Huhmann spent a lot of time with his back to the crowd, although perhaps he was just shielding fans from bearing the full brunt of the feedback-flavored fury. Even when Lushbox indulged in a lengthy (by indie-punk standards) jam to close one tune, its music remained inescapably engaging. Both its complex new compositions and its increasingly tight live show suggest Lushbox has been hard at work, and while there wasn’t much of a crowd to witness this showcase, the eventual payoff from all its practice should be plentiful.