Perfume Genius. Photo: Angel Ceballos
Mike Hadreas doesn’t do drugs, or at least not anymore. This is what the front man of Perfume Genius connoted as he told me the story about how a destitute man carrying a baby randomly solicited him for drugs a few blocks away upon his arrival. He looks as if he wants to laugh and grimace simultaneously at this, but opts to smoke the cigarette clenched in his right paw instead. This is his first time playing in Utah. We’re standing on the outside wall of Kilby under an inclement sky ten minutes before the opening act goes on. Hadreas is strange, but you’ve seen stranger. He speaks very unabashedly, but also nervously, which at first I assume to be his normal inflection given the poetic nature of the music the guy writes. Not long after, he checks his phone and then politely excuses himself before he treads off to the green room. I follow his path, but instead veer off towards the stage along with remnants of the crowd as the first band begins to play.
Opening act and tour companions, Parenthetical Girls (fronted by Zac Pennington) projected a persona radically different from that of Perfume Genius’s timid front man. Well, to clarify, the only similarities Pennington and Hadreas seem to share are their sexual orientation and early-Smiths hairstyle. Comparisons aside, Parenthetical Girls loosened up the crowd with their Portland style of baroque pop aligned with Pennington’s brazen and nasal vocals, sounding not unlike a slightly effeminate version of Hutch Henry from The Thermals. To say Parenthetical Girls wields great stage presence is a severe understatement. The only member who stood still was the female keyboardist who slightly resembled a narcotized Debbie Harry with cropped hair. The drummer (who also part-timed as a secondary keyboardist) was constantly orbiting around half of the stage. Pennington would stride out into the crowd when not swaying on top of his monitor, whimsically gesturing with fluttering hands possibly more than Robert Plant has in his whole existence. His antics go against the grain compared to the halcyon stage protocol most modern lead singers abide by. Moreover, he was overly vivacious and talkative. At many times, Pennington gave humorous monologues between songs as if he was covertly practicing to moonlight as a stand-up comedian. The dude certainly had enough cheeky charisma to cover Kilby and all of the occupants whom stood within it.
The venue then saddled an almost Shakespearean transition from comedy to tragedy once Perfume Genius took the stage. Upon opening, Mike Hadreas immediately sedated the audience with “Gay Angels,” one of the more expressive and ambient tracks from his first album, except there was a distinct contrast from what I remember on the album—his vocals were completely unfiltered at that moment. Handreas later confirmed with a woeful apology a quarter into the set that his raw crooning wasn’t intentional since Kilby’s limited set-up was unable to grant him the reverb he desired. However, this proved to be more of a backdoor advantage than Handreas realized by making his performance more authentic and his lyrics more convincing.
Halfway through “Still Waters,” a song where Hadreas’ expresses feelings of hopelessness over his desire for a more gay-tolerant society, the performance’s visceral effects took a greater toll when I noticed how Hadreas’ introverted, glossy-eyed demeanor was persistently constant. More than half of his songs stem from an autobiographical experience and he sang each individual one as if he was forcibly reliving them. This surfaced an even more interesting revelation for me, regardless of stage jitters or the nakedness of missing reverb, I believe any apprehension Mike Handreas has is completely appropriate. He’s had a rough life and by the way he sings his music, he’s confronting an intolerant and hostile world, one that happens to be very real and magnified in the current media. He doesn’t do it for the sake of being an incidental, underdog activist. He does it because it’s absolutely necessary in order to express himself as an honest musician. Perfume Genius’ immaculate live orchestration left me beside myself. The whole crowd seemed beside themselves. The audience’s reverence produced a rare silence most stereotypically staunch librarians can only dream of.
Nearing the end of the set, the female synth player from Parenthetical Girls joined the stage to modestly provide backing vocals on a couple of songs, resulting with “Learning,” a hit song from Perfume Genius’ first album deemed near-perfect by many critics, sounding almost too perfect. Ending the show with an encore, Hadreas performed “Katie,” an unreleased track that seemed to further sweeten the deal of any impulsive fans that paid the $12 to see the show that day.
Admittedly, I did leave the show that night in a different headspace than when I first arrived. Perfume Genius’s set (and overall compositions) is a narrative of tragic realities offering very little reprieve. Yes, drugs will never come close to achieving it and (as made-for-TV cinema has taught us) usually only worsen it. Mike Hadreas knows his enemies thoroughly and fears them tremendously, but still doesn’t let it stop him from what he does. Happy ending in sight or not, I guess you have to find a way to press on, no matter how despairing the odds may seem.