ALLSTON — Being alone on a stage with only an instrument invites vulnerability — the lack of boundaries between audience and performer mean that the art is the focal point for both. On Sunday afternoon at O'Brien's Pub, Marissa Paternoster — the New Jersey guitarist who's gained renown for her work with the bruising trio Screaming Females — took the stage as Noun, turning in a blistering, banter-light performance that cemented her status as one of indie rock's boldest talents.
The combination of Paternoster's precisely aimed guitar work — lightning-strike chords, meticulous picking, hanging feedback that linked songs together — and her commanding voice, a bellow that stretches vowel sounds and squeezes syllables so that they sound almost diabolical, made for a compelling experience that was enhanced by O'Brien's cozy confines.
Early on, tracks like the divinely aimed "Patience" and the spat-out "I Don't Love Anybody" brought to mind the rawest early work of PJ Harvey, who approached audiences in a similarly unflinching way. Midway through her set, Paternoster made the comparison explicit with a bracing, hoarse cover of "Dry," Harvey's vengeful gob aimed at the day-to-day humiliations of being a woman.
Paternoster's lyrics are full of hunger for connection and salvation, and her work implicitly explores the way those two connect. Her performance, meanwhile, was a thrilling example of how one person with a guitar and the courage to put what's in her head into the world can help alter its landscape, even on a heat-warped summer afternoon.
Noun's set was actually Paternoster's second stint on O'Brien's stage Sunday; earlier, she added guitar filigrees and backing vocals to Modern Hut, the "extreme loner folk" project of fellow Garden Stater Joe Steinhardt. (Steinhardt also runs Don Giovanni Records, a punk label that has released material by both Noun and Screaming Females; Paternoster produced Modern Hut's debut, "Generic Treasure.")
Modern Hut's music takes the worst feelings a person can have when they're alone ("I don't want to get adjusted to this world," for example) and puts them under a microscope; the results can be harrowing and at the same time funhouse-mirror funny, depending on how far removed one is from those emotional depths. Steinhardt's flat, eyes-forward affect and brutally straightforward lyrics were tempered by the guitars, which floated around him like clouds on a sunny day.
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.