Last week (August 1) I had the great pleasure of seeing Le Tigre, Electrelane, and Origami perform at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. Outside of Tulsa, Cain's Ballroom is probably best known as (1) one of the eight spots that the Sex Pistols played in 1978, their only US tour (at least with Sid Vicious in tow) and (2) the headquarters for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys from 1934-1943. Although I’ve lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas for nine years, and Tulsa is just a two hours’ drive away, it was my first venture there for a show. I try to keep abreast of good music shows in the region, and my impression is that groups like Le Tigre rarely tour this part of the world.
I loved the fact that it was an all-women show. On the coasts and in larger cities, I’m sure such bills are much more common, but not here in the heartland. Fayetteville, for instance, has a pretty lively and creative music scene, but there are few good bands with any women. I loved Woods Afire, which was fronted by two female vocalists, but it recently disbanded. The all-female Pink Mafia is great fun but doesn’t perform that often. So the “cool” music here is mostly guy-dominated.
This was an all-women show but it was not about selling sex. It’s not that the women performing were unattractive, but “attractiveness” was not the point, and was not the enticement. Rather, what was at issue was the music, which was terrific. If there was a point made about gender, it was that women can play instruments and can produce innovative, vital and challenging music. (From a certain perspective, it seems obvious that “women can play instruments,” but in fact women are very rarely given props or even encouragement for doing so. Whenever music magazines like Spin or Rolling Stone produce lists of the Top 100 Guitarists--and the guitar is *the* rock instrument--only 2 or 3 female guitarists show up.)
Origami, who opened the show, are from Melbourne, Australia. I was not familiar with their music before I saw them. They play energetic punk that is somewhat “pop”--and I mean that entirely in the best sense. Origami’s EP, Cruising for a Bruising, is well worth getting. The lead singer (can’t find her name) is a terrific performer, and a Yank who’s lived in Melbourne for the last 8 years.
Electrelane (Brighton, England) is much better known, and is touring in support of their latest album, Axes. It’s a bit hard to describe or put your finger on exactly what Electrelane are up to, and what that means, I think, is that they are making music that is quite unique. You simply can’t fit it into a genre or really say that it’s “like” anything you heard before. I was pretty familiar with Electrelane’s recordings, but wasn’t fully prepared for what I saw on stage. I want to say they’re a bit like Stereolab, but that’s not right, because they are much more “avant” and unpredictable. Based on their recordings, I expected more vocal harmonies, but only the keyboardist, Verity Susman, sang. The songs, or really I’d rather say, composition, are quite complex, they ebb and flow, they rock out and then they go disjointed and jangly. At times the group reaches that kind of rock groove, really basic yet banging and mesmerising, that Velvet Underground was so famous for achieving, a groove or plateau that so many groups have tried to imitate ever since and so few ever achieve. Electrelane, I think, is one of the few who do achieve it. All the girls are very proficient on their instruments, but there are few “solos” and never any long solos, and so it’s really all about ensemble playing. I found it really a joy to watch a group of women who are great players but none of whom is trying to stand out like a “guitar god(dess).” That said, Verity Susman’s keyboard work is really impressive, because she often goes into dissonant, avant, and unexpected places.
After Origami and Electrelane, my friend Dave and I really felt we had already got our money’s worth. And then Le Tigre showed up, and took things to another level.
Before I write about Le Tigre, a digression. I teach a course on Popular Culture, and one of my interests in that regard is gender and popular music. I try to keep up with the academic literature in this field, and my sense is that academics interested in this subject mostly write about female artists who are active and vocal about issues of gender and sexuality. In a certain way, this makes a lot of sense. Firstly, because the connection between the gender/sexuality politics and the music is quite obvious when it comes to certain artists like Le Tigre. It is apparent in the lyrics and the artists in question are very clear about the political implications of what they are doing. Second, since the gender/sex politics of the music is clear and direct, the effects of the music are (or appear to be) fairly transparent. That is, audiences, or at least some in the audience, must be sympathetic with the political messages being conveyed by the music. It is for such reasons, I suppose, that bands like Le Tigre and in particular the most well-known member of Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna, get the most attention from academics interested in music/gender/sexuality. Le Tigre’s messages are (mostly) quite clear, and Kathleen Hanna is outspoken, and a good interview subject. Partly in reaction to the fact that Le Tigre/Kathleen Hanna receive the bulk of academic coverage when it comes to women rock/punk bands, I am interested in trying to figure out the gender/sexual significance and “messages” of bands whose politics are not worn on their sleeve. I am a big fan of Le Tigre, but I think that other female led bands need to be given much more attention. I think it is a mistake (for academics as well as progressive journalists) to privilege the feminist politics of Le Tigre at the expense of other female artists, and that it is necessary to explore other modes of doing politics and performing gender and sexuality.
I write this in part as a disclaimer: because so much is written about Le Tigre that I feel I have nothing to add. But nonetheless, I write. Le Tigre opened with “On the Verge,” the opening song from This Island, their latest album. It is just a kick-ass song, a great way to start the show on a very high energy level, and the level just never flagged. I’ve rarely seen a show where so much attention was paid to so many domains of performance. Outfits: The first half of the show, the girls wore matching, designer, abstract-sixties-pop art hand-sewn outfits, then switched to their divine olive-green-and-black “Stop Bush” outfits. Choreography: Always, great coordination, great dancing. Their show in fact reminds me, in a way, of the B-52’s, but with a lefty-lesbian twist. I think JD Samson, involved in the “Dykes Can Dance” Troupe, is mostly responsible for orchestrating Le Tigre’s dance moves. Video: For every song, a video is shown on the screen behind the band. I think JD Samson produces these, too. The vids are really effective for the agit-prop that Le Tigre does. On one song (and I forget which one) the lyrics were projected, making the (political) message very clear. On another song (again, don’t remember which) the video showed photos, book jackets, and album covers of artists/authors/theorists who Le Tigre wanted to name-check (Patti Smith, Jean Genet, Sonic Youth, Ella Fitzgerald, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Nina Simone, Public Enemy, KRS-1, Gretchen Philips, Carly Simon, Gloria Steinem, Dolly Parton, Michel Foucault, Alice Walker, Janice Joplin). Best of all was the video for “New Kicks,” the anti-Iraq war song from “This Island,” which features footage of the huge mobilizations prior to the Iraq war and excerpts from anti-war speeches (by the likes of Amy Goodman and Al Sharpton). I wish more bands would pay such careful attention to all these aspects of performance.
And then there was the music itself, which was just outstanding. There are three songs from “On the Verge” I am not very fond of. “New Kicks” is great but after you hear it once or twice, I find it gets boring. But in performance, it was really effective, and I felt for a minute or two that I was back in an anti-war demonstration, venting against Bush and US imperialism. I don’t care much either for “Nanny Nanny Boo Boo” or “I’m So Excited,” but both are more interesting in the concert context. “Sixteen” is a song from “On the Verge” that I hadn’t really paid much attention to, I guess because it is more subtle and low-key than the others. Watching it performed, I learned to love it and appreciate its loungey sensibilities. Finally, hearing/seeing Kathleen sing “Seconds” live reminded me that Kathleen is one of the great female punk singers ever.
The audience was all ages, and at Cain’s, this means ALL ages. There were lots, lots of 10-12 year old kids. I found it very encouraging that they were there to see Le Tigre, and digging it. So, lots of diversity in age. (But--as is usual in the heartland when you see white bands--zero racial diversity. All white.)
I hope more bands like Le Tigre will find their ways to Cain’s in future. Here’s my wish list: PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Sleater-Kinney. Please, alternative/hip bands, get your asses into the heartland and the red states. We need you! Stop privileging the coasts.
A final note. The third or fourth song in Le Tigre set was “What’s Ya Take on Cassavetes.” Lots of people seemed to know the number and the lyrics. But I bet almost no one in the audience had ever seen a John Cassavetes film. The three young people I went to the show with are very cool, but none of them had ever seen a Cassavetes. This must change...