“We’re missing bonfire night to be here with you,” announced singer-guitarist Katy Young to a seemingly mystified audience Saturday evening at Montserrat House. The reference was to Guy Fawkes Day, which might seem strange coming from a member of a band called Peggy Sue. Yet this trio is as fully British as its name and plaintive melodies seem all-American. That Britishness explained the trio’s aloof stage manner, which warmed just a bit as the audience responded to the austerely exuberant music.
Formed in Brighton and now based in London, Peggy Sue was once linked to the U.K.’s “new folk” scene. But Young and fellow singer-guitarist Rosa Slade plugged in their instruments before making “Acrobats,” the group’s second album. On Saturday, the minor-key tunes and close harmonies suggested Appalachia’s “high lonesome” sound, while the raucous guitars were more in the spirit of such female-fronted folk-goes-punk groups as Ut and Salem 66. Unlike such precursors, Peggy Sue lacks a bassist. But Young occasionally played bass riffs on her top strings, and Olly Joyce’s distinctive thumping gave an appealing swing to such songs as “Song and Dance,” which featured waltzlike passages.
Young took the lead on some of the band’s darker material, including accounts of murder (“There Always Was”) and erotic adventurism (“Cut My Teeth”). The latter, the six-minute epic that opens “Acrobats,”was wisely held till the end of the 40-minute set, when the group had built the power to convincingly deliver such lines as “I made him stay / Because I could / I cut my teeth / on his good looks.” Young and Slade often sang in unison, their voices sometimes slipping just far enough apart to create ghostly counterpoint.
If Young was the more intense performer, Slade proved the more engaging one. After the first few numbers, she began to smile regularly. She was also the only musician who traded instruments, switching to acoustic guitar or drum to facilitate the tricky arrangements that help distinguish Peggy Sue’s style from traditional folk. Whether beating her drum or summoning feedback filigrees, Slade bolstered “Song and Dance’s” anti-folk boast: “If all you want is peace and quiet / you’ve come to the wrong place.”