The Julie Ruin played Washington, D.C.’s Black Cat this past weekend, reuniting erstwhile D.C. residents Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox (both fomerly of Bikini Kill) alongside drummer Carmine Covelli, keyboardist Kenny Mellman, and guitarist Sara Landeau. Having existed in various states of hibernation over the past three years, their brief tour is a coming out party of sorts. (For more, see our interview. Also, see show photos below).
There’s a bit of a reunion atmosphere. In addition to the two familiar faces on stage, the room is full of many others formerly prominent in the D.C. music scene. They’re certainly aged — some more than others — but all seem more than able to handle whatever the night will bring.
The crowd is an interesting mix; significant turnout amongst the mid-30s through late-40s set is almost balanced by turnout from those born around the time the D.C. scene reached its zenith over 20 years ago.
They kick off their set with “V.G.I.,” a 1997 Julie Ruin track with a Ray Manzarek-like keyboard part immediately signaling, for those who came unaware, that this is not going to resemble a Bikini Kill show.
Then we return to the here and now, the thumping bass and new wave-ish keyboards of “Lookout” accompanied by Ian MacKaye-like staccato vocals and orchestrations reminiscent of Sleater-Kinney. Already, you can see that there isn’t just one sound for the band, they are bringing in a variety of influences and those manifest themselves in very different ways, song-to-song.
And that continues as we hear surf-infused guitar worked into Le Tigre‘s “Friendship Station.” The lights are completely static, but there’s nothing static about Kathleen Hanna. She shimmies about, kinetic even when standing in place belting out…”It’s all right.”
Landeau has a striking presence on stage, her guitar work and her visage standing out amidst the mix. She’s actively chewing gum, that activity seemingly incongruous with her fetching retro polka dot top and neat blonde bob. That is, until you notice the twinge of lavender streaking her hair, reminding you that she isn’t on the set of “Mad Men,” but rather, is right at home on this sort of stage with her fellow musicians.
Having scorched three songs by three bands, it’s time for a shout out to the “disagreeable women” in the audience who came together for a common cause in the ’90s. There’s talk about differences making you stronger — which is true up to a point, I guess — and talk of political organization on behalf of causes that mostly never reached fruition. Maybe, just maybe, disagreeability didn’t help in that regard. “Girls Like Us” takes on more of an ’80s punk vibe, much more frenetic than on the album.
They continue to blow through their material, Mellman taking the mic on “Southcoast Plaza” and perhaps providing a bit of a respite for Hanna, who has now mentioned more than once that she’s dealing with the debilitating lethargy that comes with Lyme Disease. She’s dealing with it much better than, say, whatever it is that plagues Axl Rose, who these days disappears off stage for minutes at a time with amazing frequency.
Hanna’s vocals are never going to be mistaken for the classically trained. Purposeful dissonance has long been part of her relevance, and her cries into the night are often about emotive symbolism rather than tone itself. And that’s a good thing, because it facilitates a flexible explanation when she’s not exactly hitting the notes as conceived.
Not that anyone seems to notice, and perhaps the metronomic steadiness of Covelli’s drums and Wilcox’s bass facilitate that groove, allowing emotion to overcome the Gen Xers who were only tangentially a part of that whole Gen X ethos. Kathi Wilcox, in particular, generally sports an almost affected economy of expression and movement. The steadiness of the rhythm section allows all the other stuff to happen over top, allows the emotional outburst to remain anchored in place even when Hanna is venting about moving on from toxic friendships, “I dont give a fuck what you say.”
We return to the past with a device that always seems to work, the call and response, alternated between genders for additional effect. Looking around and seeing the passion elicited, it doesn’t seem like that long ago when Hanna’s haircut was ascendant amongst the types of women who also lived in Mt. Pleasant and frequented rock shows. It still has its place, perhaps in greater numbers amongst this sample for obvious reasons.
That conformity to an alternative convention continues…and the single “Oh Come On” brings the audience response to its height as the set comes to a close.
The encore features a killer cover of Le Tigre’s “Eau d’Bedroom Dancing.” It’s killer bass line fits a shoegazer motif, and the almost Chinese half tones on the keyboard are a striking departure, as is its build without any true crescendo. It’s an interesting valedictory, the vibe a distinct departure from the evening’s aura.
The music’s over, they turn on the lights. And then, unexpectedly, the most poignant moment of the evening follows. Hanna re-emerges as promised, this time casual in jeans and demeanor. She’s no longer in rock goddess mode, instead battling fatigue and pushing forward to take care of responsibilities, looking very much like a soccer mom. Despite the throng waiting to greet her, at this moment she walks across the floor as a regular person. A regular person who grew up in a series of ennui filled suburbs, an alienated outcast just like those who have looked to her for inspiration on those fronts. She greets fans, amicably yet dutifully, and moves over to spend time with her family. You remember that we all came from somewhere, somewhere fate chose for us, somewhere that shaped and molded us for better and for worse.
This isn’t a vision of youthful punks stridently gathering in the streets, collectively identifying with their idiosyncrasies, pushing forward against the status quo with unbridled zeal and vigor. It’s not a moment that could remotely be considered rock and roll. Instead, it’s one that exemplifies that we’re all in this together; we’re all from somewhere, we all have our problems, and even our leaders leave the stage and exist on the very same level.
It’s a different context altogether, and perhaps symbolic of what Hanna has sought all these years to achieve.
Black Cat | Washington, D.C. | September 7, 2013 Photos: Katherine Gaines