Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis effused flower power on center stage Tuesday night. She wore a floral print top, a skirt and a flower pin in her hair, distancing her look from the dreary Madison weather. Her bright blue, bejeweled guitar stood out as it was fretted by Dupuis’s highlighter-orange and yellow nails. To her left, the black-and-blue-haired bassist wore black clothes and strummed with black nails, providing a stark contrast to the lead vocalist. A second guitarist and a drummer who provided backing vocals rounded out the indie quartet.
Holding a degree in poetry, Dupuis displayed her vocabulary with lyrics including words such as “diaristic” and “hypnic.” Between songs, the group’s leader sipped tea and participated in playful self-deprecation, once describing herself by the title of the track, “Mr. Difficult.” Uttered into a microphone affixed by a hanging stuffed animal, Dupuis’s jokes about uncertainty were not particularly well-received by the modest crowd, though some laughed along uncomfortably.
In contrast to her spoken measures, Dupuis’s mid-song persona felt confident. Sporting glitter eyeshadow, her eyes remained open and lit up the venue’s confines. She cursed and sang loud over the gritty rock music. “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss. The shooter not the shot,” she bemoaned to onlookers during the chorus of “Raising the Skate.” She dictated the impassioned brand of indie rock with semi-spirited head bobs and less-than-choreographed dance sessions with bandmates.
The audience was underwhelming both in quantity and enthusiasm, perhaps in part because Speedy Ortiz have not released a new record in more than two years. Even during the hooky “No Below,” crowd members generally did not sing along. “I was the best at being second place, but now I’m just the runner-up,” Dupuis wailed, leading a band unusually well-renowned for an opening set at High Noon.
Tera Melos followed with a still sparse but slightly more anticipatory congregation. The too-complex-to-be-ascribed-to-a-single-genre trio opened their loud, tight set with an abrasiveness that shocked me as a first-time listener. Much more of that followed.
Led by frontman Nick Reinhart, the group dazzled with seamless transitions and abrupt, but carefully curated, dynamics. Described by Wikipedia as a math rock band, their set featured elements of jazz, hardcore punk, heavy progressivism and much more. Constant, unpredictable changeovers required those watching to engage. I obliged.
Tera Melos were reckless but never out of control. At times, Reinhart fretted his axe with violent, jerky motions. He regularly played hammer-ons with both hands simultaneously in rapid movements, provoking the gaze and awe of onlookers. Reinhart’s shredding required tremendous dexterity and accuracy, both of which he was happy to supply.
The bassist harmonized with Reinhart on occasion and hopped during driving passages. Much like his rhythms, the drummer borrowed from different times with his appearance, rocking a dark moustache with straight, long hair. Reinhart spoke during tuning breaks in a witty, dry tone, evoking laughter. He recited an anecdote about buying a Freddy Krueger doll at Walgreen’s on the capitol square the last time he played at High Noon. His guitar strap was adorned by a pin, reading “Eat Cheese or Die” — likely a nod to the dairy state where he was performing.
The band used electronic sequencing in transitioning between tunes at times, and once the venue’s lights went out as a premeditated trick. I felt mesmerized by the group’s immaculate timekeeping, as they routinely changed time signatures in crisp unison. Their meticulous commitment to sharp rhythm was one of the most impressive spectacles I’ve seen in a live act. Heavier riffs poured over the audience, complimented by jazzy, danceable portions.
Touring together, Speedy Ortiz and Tera Melos felt like an atypical pairing. Stylistically different, perhaps it was their shared passion for quirks and rhythm that made them a formidable one-two punch.