On June 10th, 2019.
It’s not often that you get the opportunity to see live a band that shaped so much of who you are as a person, from your appearance to your musical tastes. None have inspired so many as Bikini Kill. They are the archetypal Riot Grrl band, who blend femininity, feminism and punk to inspire millions into political activism and music. After two decades they are back, and while it is joyous to finally see them perform live, it’s just as bittersweet that their feminist lyrics are just as relevant as they were in the 90s.
Often, as a woman (and I imagine it’s the same for trans & non-binary people too) a music venue feels an unsafe place: groping men, separation from friends, unsympathetic door staff and so on. So, a trip to London to a 5,000-capacity venue would normally induce anxiety. But not this time at the O2 Academy Brixton. The security staff are warm and friendly, and even being searched prior to entry doesn’t seem threatening. The bar staff all have smiles on their faces and seem to be just as excited to see the headliners as the rest of us. It’s a reminder that this is what all gigs should feel like, and I suspect the majority-woman/wxman crowd has something to do with that.
Prior to Bikini Kill, Big Joanie warmed up the crowd. Part of the new wave of feminist punk bands, they have a formidable stage presence. Their recently released album ‘Sistahs’ is something everyone should own, and these stripped back but distorted sounds are just as powerful on stage. The self-proclaimed “Black Feminist Punk Band” speak out to the people of colour in the audience, and drummer Chardine encourages black queer people to pick up an instrument before putting on a new twist to Kathleen Hanna’s original call: “Women of colour to the front!”. Their set flows and builds from the quieter ‘Way Out’ up to the more punky ‘Fall Asleep’. Seeing a young, queer, black punk band shows how the scene is evolving, not just Riot Grrl, but punk as a whole.
The atmosphere is electric for Bikini Kill once those first chords of ‘New Radio’ begin. The band are playing even better than they did twenty years ago, with new guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle slotting into the band perfectly. The standout is Hanna’s vocals. They are just as clear, powerful and loud as they ever where, and the lofty Brixton Academy amplifies and echoes them to perfection; it sounds like Hanna is singing right next to me. At times, the cymbals and parts of the guitar are somewhat lost, likely due to the echoey sound in the venue, but it doesn’t detract in any way from the songs. Even on their quieter songs like ‘Feels Blind’ the four-piece work perfectly together.
Hanna speaks in between the songs, often providing anecdotes for how these songs came about over 20 years ago. A stand-out moment is when Hanna herself acknowledges the sadness at their songs still being relevant. And it’s true; the Trump-precedency ruining the USA, Brexit increasing racism and bigotry across Europe, queer women being beaten in London only days before. Hanna herself acknowledges the cathartics in singing hers and part-time voalist Tobi Vails’ lyrics. It’s reminiscent of myself, screaming Bikini Kill songs while practicing Hanna’s trademark kicks and dancing when younger (and still, unashamedly, now).
Vail’s vocals are just as beautiful, even if she doesn’t perform the acrobatic dancing like Hanna and she remains the ‘library of feminism’ for the band. She talks about how the band didn’t care about being perfect on their chosen instruments, and how that hasn’t hindered their music or creativity. She also mentions how the changing of instruments live on stage was part of them learning and experimenting. And it works. One of the highlights is hearing Vail scream out the lyrics to ‘Hamster Baby”’
Throughout the set, classic songs such as ‘Reject All American’, ‘Lil Red’ and ‘No Backrub’ continue to hype up the crowd. But, we are all waiting for it. And then it happens. The stomping drums, the distorted guitar… They finally play ‘Rebel Girl’. All at once it seems like everyone in the venue is dancing like Hanna, strangers are singing at each other in synchrony. We’ve waited a whole generation for this moment, and we enjoyed every second. After a brief pause, the band comes back on for the encore, complete with a new sequin encrusted dress for Hanna. Building on the euphoric atmosphere, Hanna launches into ‘Double Dare Ya’’ and ‘Suck My Left One’ before they end with a heartfelt and emotional performance of ‘For Tammy Rae’.
The euphoria spills out onto the streets after the show, and even the next day I keep bumping into people from the gig, still high on the experience. Their lyrics may be more relevant than ever, but their voices are louder and it’s inspiring us too. Feminists to the front!