Perfume Genius at the Neptune

The man who first appeared on the Neptune stage Saturday night must’ve been Mike Hadreas, the performer who spent his earliest days as a musician reluctant to appear onstage, wracked as he was with stage fright. Tentative, saucer-eyed, clean-cut and handsome like a working movie star, he was almost swallowed up by his shiny penny-colored satin two-piece suit. He paced the stage as a three-piece band tiptoed into opening piano notes of “Otherside,” the first song from No Shape, released earlier this year. Eventually, Hadreas put the microphone to his mouth, and even then he kept his eyes downcast, his voice interior.

“Even your going/let it find you,” were the Tacoma singer-songwriter’s first words to the sold-out crowd, sung in a hypnotized warble. “Even in hiding/find it knows you.”

Two minutes of this delicate interplay between voice and piano—and then suddenly, momentously, on the final syllable of the would-be chorus “Rocking you to sleep/from the other side,” the song cracked open, a thunder strike of sound, and as if taken by some heavenly spirit, Hadreas curled backwards, his body expectantly arched, arms outstretched to capture the cold white spotlight from above. There and then Hadreas became Perfume Genius, fearsome in his brazen vulnerability, a hero built from the scar tissue of a million tiny wounds.

Flashing between these modes, he finished “Otherside” and gave a sincere but succinct “Hi! Nice to see you” to the crowd, then segued into the following song. All night long the band splashed through similarly dramatic dynamics, the drummer swapping from mallets to sticks; the keyboardist unpacking warm, enveloping tones unique to each song; the bassist sometimes switching to guitar. Song after song, Hadreas let the music do much of the work, telling the story, his voice and body adding flourish and texture and filigree. A malleable voice, almost architectural in its expressive structure, it was a bundle of extremities—anger, tenderness, disdain, devotion. He swooped and sashayed across the stage as if drawn by the music from one corner to the other, one hand on the corded microphone, the other clutching at his chest. He would crouch into a tightly swaying squat or stretch out to achieve that same impossible, back-breaking lean, folding and unfolding his body like calligraphy.

This Perfume Genius was, of course, the same as Mike Hadreas, but instead of stage fright, he was displaying something related in the converse. It was as if the obvious care and concern he poured into the performance protected him from any potential misunderstanding by the audience. He might as well have been alone on-stage, hermetically sealed inside a glass box, working to a standard purely of his own devising. He joked around a bit, muttered about the wonder of fresh towels as he patted his brow mid-set, talked about this being the last show of the tour—all while his eyes were fixed in the same middle-distance gaze, somewhere between five feet above the front row and a million miles away, that I most frequently see in theatre actors. In this separation between audience and artist, in Hadreas’ fully immersed solitude, the night felt closer to a Broadway production than a rock concert.

That constructed solitude gave the band extra leverage to paint gorgeous songs like “Wreath” and “Valley” with lavish depth and color. This was probably the quietest pop-music peformance I’ve seen this year, at times sounding like Brightblack Morning Light, an all-time cult fave, in its sensual, understated blues. The crowd was respectfully silent for the majority of the show—a surprise and a blessing that made the Neptune’s buzzing sound system all the more irritating. After the band closed the set with the ecstatic “Slip Away,” Hadreas returned alone to his center-stage electric piano and sung a few songs solo, intense and earnest, with an almost mystical humility. One of them, “Alan,” about Hadreas’ romantic partner and the keyboardist in his band Alan Wyffles, closed with a lyric, sung with full heart and voice, that is objectively perfect: “I’m here/how weird.”

Again, that quiet isolation made the crescendos all the more profound when they came. The band emerged again for the finale–”Queen,” that statement of purpose and identity, that prayer for autonomy and liberation, that launched Perfume Genius’ present superstar trajectory—and the room echoed with emotion. And then Hadreas—surely it was he—finished the song, almost absentmindedly dropped the microphone next to his keyboard and quickly left the stage.

Instagram photo courtesy @mooglesatemyneighbors