When Perfume Genius, the nom de stage of Seattle's Mike Hadreas, appeared onstage to the undulating rhythms of his Elvis via Twin Peaks pastiche "My Body," it was jawdropping. Wearing red lipstick, fishnet stockings, glossy vinyl winklepickers, barely-there hotpants and an elegant black top that seemed to hover between menswear and womenswear, he was an incredible sight. He explained halfway through the set that he hadn't had a chance to have any caffeine, so he had to "get into full bitch." One of the most powerful aspects of his performance was the way he was not afraid to embrace femininity and draw power from it.
That is the theme of "Queen," arguably Perfume Genius's best song to date. "No family is safe, when I sashay," Hadreas sings, alluding to a slight controversy that arose when an advertisement for the release of his 2012 album Put Your Back N 2 It was deemed not family friendly by YouTube, despite featuring little more than two men embracing. Hadreas, though a slight, gentle-voiced man, commanded the stage, his body rippling from shoulders to toes as he strutted menacingly about. On-stage, he is able to effortlessly switch from "full bitch," to his fun and playful side, riffing with audience members and cracking jokes, a cheeky grin plastered to his face.
The songs that found Hadreas seated at his keyboard, either alone or accompanied by partner in music and life Alan Wyffels, saw his face contort as he sang, as if the act were actually hurting him. Such is the sincerity of his songs, which are often unbearably heartbreaking, like high school tale "Mr. Peterson" or the misleadingly lilting "Learning," both from the 2010 debut album. The set was at its best though when the full band took to the stage and their complex, layered interplay was on display. On the surface, Perfume Genius songs are not terribly complicated, but the band played them with a nuance that increased the magnetism of the performance tenfold.
The set drew from all across Perfume Genius's three albums, and all the highlights were there. The audience sing-alongs to songs like "Queen," "Fool" and "Hood" were, of course, wonderful, but some of the most beguiling moments were the unfamiliar. One song in particular was new - or at least new to me - along with its drowsy keyboards and swaying beat sounding not unlike Angelo Badalamenti's score for the aforementioned Twin Peaks, Hadreas literally shrieked into the microphone, bent over double. It was one of the most powerful moments from an immensely powerful set.
What made the set even more powerful was that it re-affirmed Oxford Art Factory as an excellent live music venue. It is so nice to see live music and not have to wear earplugs or risk going deaf. The sound was loud, but not overly so, and it was crystal clear, without the unfortunate distortion that plagues a lot of live music venues.
Special mention should also go to Aldous Harding, the self-described gothic-folk singer from New Zealand who opened. With just her guitar and her beautiful, woodsy vocals, Harding made a hush descend upon the crowd, who were hanging onto every word of her bizarrely self-effacing and disjointed between song banter. Surely there were a few misty eyes in the room when she closed with an a capella rendition of Roy Orbison's immortal "Crying."
The two sets were an absolute privilege to behold. Perfume Genius is at his peak right now - he already seems like an icon - and Aldous Harding is most definitely an artist to watch out for. This is what live music is about - atmosphere, incredible songs and performers who take your breath away.