Three dates into a tour for her recently-released sophomore album, “Shake The Spirit,” Elle King was doing her thing, heatedly, in the name of broken romance and righteous, post-breakup revelry Sunday night. Singing haughtily and poignantly on the tragicomic state of love and loss at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia, King churned the clotted cream of punkish country, raw R&B, crotchety rock and deep blues into rich, buttery musical drama with her band, the Brethren — sealing the deal with a sly grin on her face, a giant skull head on her shirt, a caustic, bittersweet edge to her lyrics, and a crowd-pleasing penchant for flashing the audience at lyrically appropriate moments.
As on her debut album, 2015’s “Love Stuff,” and accompanying live showcases such as 2016’s The Ministry Tour (where marrying couples became a centerpiece of each gig with King acting as officiator), King created a fireside chat atmosphere between each torrid track, tucking into the subject of her ex-husband, briefly, but mostly reminiscing about her teen time going to school in the Philly area at University of the Arts. “I lived two blocks from here,” said King. “I was really bad when I was here. I used to busk to get money to buy acid,” she said with a husky chuckle.
Sounding like a pointed, sensual, coolly emotional mix of all three of the Pistol Annies rolled into one — with Janis Joplin’s low growl for good, vintage, psych-bluesy measure — King belted, crooned, purred, sauntered and swaggered her way through a tautly rocking set starting with a new track, “Baby Outlaw.”
Devoid of the album version’s Morricone-like spaghetti Western guitars and church bells, the live “Baby Outlaw” was blunt and sultry punk. When King sings (maybe “stings” is more apt) the line “Pity the man that stands in my way / I’m a nightmare, even in the day,” the vibe was so ominous, you all but stepped aside. A Stooges-esque guitar riff and heavy-footed beat to “Talk of the Town” gave her purr of a voice a cattier, angry edge. “Lemme tell you about them red-headed girls / All they do is complain,” King sneered in disgust. You never want to assume an author’s lyrics are strictly autobiographical, but if King doesn’t know this particular red-head, she must know her sister. A similar angst lingered in King’s voice when she picked up the banjo and added her rhythmic tension to the Bo Diddley blues of “Good For Nothing Woman” and its come-crawling-back-to-me plea.
By the time King and company got to the shimmying, garage-popping “Shame” — complete with her most full-throttle holler of the night — the men of the Brethren added a faux-lazy doo-wop background vocal to her vocal tale of moving and grooving. The effect was hip-swaying for band and audience alike — the first of the evening, but not the last, as the ribald “It Girl” shook the rafters, found King flashing the audience in time to her “Show us your…” lyrics, and stretching out the double entendre “So, next time they talk some s—, all you gotta do is blow them… a little kiss.”
Not everything was rude and rocking when it came to King’s set. She pulled out the acoustic country pluck and a yodel for her quiet duet with band member Cameron Neal for “Chained,” and found the subtlety of shushy vocal moments against the smoky ooh-woos of the Brethren during the C&W soul of “Good Girl Gone” and its “Never wanted to let you down / Never wanted us to fight” paean to heartbreak and necessity.
By the time that King and her band got to the set’s near-finale and her biggest smash — the hard shuffling “Ex’s & Oh’s” and its richly sexy, women-on-top chorus — one thing became very clear: nearly every song that came before it was equally contagious, catty-cool, and hit-worthy. At this point in time, she is one of pop’s most formidable vocalist/lyricists with attitude for days. Brava.