“I’m a little stressed,” a shaky smile from Emily Whitehurst AKA Survival Guide, as her hands continually disappear and reappear at the sleeves of her hoodie. A bluegrass group is packing up on the stage at Neck of the Woods. Survival Guide’s release party for their new album “Way To Go” will be following an early show of folk bands and singer-songwriters. “I guess I never really feel comfortable until I have my stage outfit on,” Emily says as a bearded fellow uses his banjo case to drill through the crowd.
An hour later the audience is gathered around the stage. Stefan Aronsen begins his DJ set by marching through the venue with a megaphone pressed against his mouth and a bottle of Jameson in his free hand. He distributes the whiskey to the crowd to an electro beat, a video of himself running from the Mission District to Neck of the Woods projecting on the screen behind him.
On this wave of sound, frenzy, and whiskey-fueled enthusiasm, the audience– dominated by local act Lords of Sealand– dance in near-performance art movements to the opening band: Young Aundee. The singer’s charismatic presence inspires the crowd to fill the room with Cthulhu-summoning arm motions and Morrisey-summoning head tosses. After a few dizzying dark pop songs, it is time for the headliner.
It’s hard to believe that just few hours ago Emily was standing shoulder to shoulder with mere mortals, as she now seems two feet taller, her heels making up about 6 inches of this, her ethereal quality making up the rest. Backed by her friends from indie-folk band Trebuchet, the frontwoman of Survival Guide looks out at the audience with warmth– The Giving Tree– or the matron saint of an eternally glinting disco ball, with the crowd as her dust motes that can only surround her and bask in her glow.
Witnessing Emily’s performance is like watching two images superimposed on each other: As she sings into her telephone microphone, she is constantly flitting between a teenager absently twisting her finger around the phone cord, and the solemn crackle of the voicemails being left– the cassette tape eternally recording and erasing bad news, good news, worse news.
The dual tones coming through the performance work harmoniously with one another. The lyrics at once high school comp book scratches and classic horror movie transcripts. Distorted growls and basslines are pierced by intensely clear angelic vocals and clean guitar strums. Snappy live snares pop into glitch beats. This harmonious push and pull is entrancing and impossible to not dance to.
As she finishes the last song, Emily stands over the audience, firing a t-rex shaped bubble-gun with the grace of a ballerina, or an assassin in a greek tragedy. Soapy water from the backfiring pistol blind the front row as applause melts into an encore song and into applause again. The crowd begins to spill out to the sidewalk and cold San Francisco fog attempts to push them back inside, the battle of elements mirroring the performance that has just taken place.
Are you addicted to contrast– a slow strobe light, a cold breeze on a hot night? Do you find loneliness to be a gift that makes company so much more poignant? If so, then you should check out Survival Guide’s “Way to Go;” See it performed live, entrenched in fog, and on the run from an axe murderer, if possible.