If you take Mackenzie Scott of Torres at her word, she was feeling almost absurdly happy, grateful and in love at Johnny Brenda’s, almost two months into her first full-band tour in way too long. But you didn’t have to understand a word she said to see it all laid bare in her body language and to feel it in her sinuous guitar lines
The last time she was in Philly—for a short solo set supporting Superchunk in November 2019—Scott teased just a couple tracks from Silver Tongue, which wasn’t out until the following January. The time before that—playing on her own in a Roxborough basement in January 2019—she totally ignored her then-most-recent release, Three Futures, and instead focused on older material.
One pandemic, one postponed tour and one engagement later, the 30-year-old performer seems light years away in mood and mindset from the person who made four albums in her 20s. Devoting nearly half of the 18-song set to this year’s Thirstier (Merge), Scott turned up the temperature in every way, blazing through the new tunes with sweat and swagger, striking rock-star moves with a newfound physicality and applying a metaphorical blowtorch to the icy armor of her earlier arrangements.
The centerpiece of the night was a pair of songs from Thirstier: the intentionally horny and corny titular ode to Scott’s fiancée (artist Jenna Gribbon, who painted the album’s spot-on cover image) and “Kiss The Corners,” a slow-burning ember of a memory disguised as a dance-floor mantra, with appropriately epic hair-tossing to boot. For context, she addressed the depression that Gribbon helped pull her out of, with a fiery love that’s softened her heart and made her love herself more.
When Torres did dip into the back catalog, it seemed to be with a conscious distance between the singer and the song. Scott spoke of reframing “Sprinter,” the title track of her 2015 album, as her youthful rage toward her Southern Baptist upbringing and the authority figures who sought to force her into a life that didn’t fit her has been replaced with empathy and mercy for them and for herself. Wherever it came from and wherever it goes from here, “Sprinter” is a career-defining song for Scott, and the maturity she brings to it in its current incarnation sacrifices none of its impact.
Introducing “Dressing America,” from Silver Tongue, Scott alluded to the ex-flame who inspired it by the sobriquet bestowed upon her by The New York Times. Encoring with a solo version of “Gracious Day” from the same 2020 record, Scott took her time talking about the guitar she received earlier in the day. It wasn’t that the song was merely a pretense for playing a new instrument for the very first time, but in the moment, the immensity of her appreciation for the gift, the sold-out show and the life she and Gribbon have built together made the song assume a different shape—not bigger, not smaller, just different—than when Scott wrote and recorded it all the way back in 2019.
Torres is Scott, and Scott is Torres, but there’s no denying the frisson that results when the singer/guitarist is matched by a band that brings the heat. This lineup’s secret weapon is keyboard/synth player Erin Manning, who created warm drones and rich overtones on Korg and Moog that absorbed Scott’s liquid riffs without annihilating them. Factor in Bryan Bisorti on drums and J.R. Bohannon on pedal steel and guitar, and the result is a multidimensional racket that’s just as compelling, in its own way, as the intense intimacy of Scott’s solo performances.
Opener Sarah Jaffe, backed by drummer Roberto Sanchez and layers and layers of billowy vocals, warmed up the crowd with synthpop that was a little cheeky, a little lusty, a little earnest and just the right amount of bombastic. Highlights: “Small Talk” and “All My Friends Are Pretty,” both from 2019’s Smut, and “Lay Low (Take Care),” from the same year’s This Is Better, Pt. 1.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich