Murray Hill introduces the night’s star attraction.
The Kathleen Hannah Project
The Knitting Factory
Saturday, December 12
Better than: Any actual battle of the bands that I’ve ever attended.
We are gathered here tonight at the Knitting Factory to praise Kathleen Hanna, not bury her. Though it’s understandable if you get confused — it’s been a minute and half since we’ve heard from her. As a musician and feminist icon, Hanna’s achievements, from the riot grrrl majesty of Bikini Kill to the body-moving dance beats of Le Tigre, are undeniable, but she’s fallen largely silent for the past few years, apparently teaching at New York University and, most recently, earning a co-writing credit on Christina Aguilera’s flop Bionic. Between her absence and the extended hiatus of Sleater-Kinney, it’s been a tough couple years for lovers of feminist-charged anthems. Tonight, though, they’ll all come roaring back.
The objective: Director Sini Anderson, who’s working on a documentary on the famously private artist, has gathered a group of contemporaries and spiritual daughters to the Knit to tape a night of live covers from the Hanna songbook: one artist per song, with set-up time limited to a commendable five minutes, tops. Before the show, Andersen tells the audience that she needs to tape us reacting to Hanna’s music, so there are several minutes of her giving us specific dance instructions, including a dramatic turn away from the stage and copious use of bananas-as-telephones, for some reason, all while the DJ plays various jams. This is actually a fairly standard part of taping live concerts (well, not the banana-phone part), but it does remind me that the last time I saw it happen was at an MTV taping of a Ludacris show at a Hard Rock. (Also, at one point, I turn around and notice Hanna’s husband, Adam “King Ad-Rock” Horovitz, taking it all in. Worrying that a Beastie Boy is judging your dance moves is a particularly singular New York experience.)
Tonight’s performers are evenly split between original riot grrrls, wild cards, and entrants in the best high school Battle of the Bands ever. The Willie Mae Rock and Roll Camp for Girls should be proud. With a median age of 17, these groups range from the harmony-rich pop-rock of the Roullettes (performing Bikini Kill’s “Feels Blind”) to the accordion and hip-swinging sass of Mindtroll (tackling the drunk-teenager lament “Carnival”) to the Fancy’s lovely piano-and-string rendition of Le Tigre’s “Les and Ray,” all clearly having the time of their lives; hopefully Anderson and Hanna are waiting backstage with hugs for everyone.
Of the teen bands, two ringers bear special note. Brooklyn kidcore veterans Care Bears on Fire tear through Le Tigre’s New York anthem “My Metrocard” with the blunt force of a “regular” punk group; singer/guitarist Sophie clearly relishes singing the lines “Oh fuck Giuliani/He’s such a fucking jerk” to a room full of nominal adults. Elsewhere, the group She Murders features Coco “Daughter of Thurston and Kim” Gordon Moore on vocals, and perhaps unsurprisingly, she already acts like a punk-rock star. Clad in pleather pants and a shirt from her mom’s X-Girl line (and having inherited her dad’s tendency to never brush the hair out of his eyes), she throws herself all over the stage during “Rebel Girl,” aided by a boy-guitarist with a penchant for mid-song jump kicks. Proud papa Thurston, who spends most of the show observing from the back, adorably pushes his way to the front to record the set with his camera phone.
Plenty of old friends drop by as well, including Kaia Wilson (formerly of Team Dresch and the Butchies) and former Le Tigre opener Toshi Reagon, providing folk-song interludes that reaffirm Hanna’s talent for empathetic character studies. Then there’s Kim Gordon herself, reading Hanna’s seminal ‘zine screed “The Riot GRRRL Manifesto,” which, well, holy god. Long considered one of rock’s most self-possessed figures, Gordon turns her reading into a sermon-on-the-mount moment, sinking her teeth into lines like “We are unwilling to falter under claims that we are reactionary reverse sexists/And not the true punk-rock soul crusaders that we know we really are.”
But you know who almost walks away with the entire night? Hilly Eye, the No Age-ish guitar-and-drums duo led by Amy Andronicus, a/k/a Amy Klein, guitar player for Rock Band of the Year Titus Andronicus and a fantastic essayist herself. Clad in a shredded Team Dresch shirt held in place by hairpins, Klein covers Le Tigre’s “Bang, Bang,” which was inspired by the New York Police Department’s shootings of Patrick Doorsman and Amadou Diallo; by song’s end, Klein is on her back, filling the room with pulsating, terrifying guitar noise and screaming the song’s count from one to 41, her intensity somehow ratcheting unbearably higher with every number.
Capping things off is a not-so-secret set from Hanna herself, in the guise of Julie Ruin, her post-Kill, pre-Tigre transition project. But after years of inactivity, four songs is simply not enough, especially when one is an admittedly fun but odd new song called “Cookie Road” (possibly named after this awesome bakery) that featured the chorus “cookie-cookie-ya-cookie-ya.” But hey, she’s an icon, and she says she’s working on new Julie Ruin songs, so there’s that, at least. And prior to that, she tears into Tigre’s “Hot Topic”: Basically a laundry list of feminist icons old and new (including Yoko Ono, Gertrude Stein, and Vaginal Crème Davis), the chorus goes “don’t you stop.” Hanna and the audience sing it to each other tonight, each desperately hoping that the other is listening.
Critical Bias: A former critic-turned-rapper once told me that “Deceptacon” is one of the most overplayed songs at alt-y dance clubs. I’m still bummed that no one covered it tonight.
Overheard: An audience member told me that he saw Le Tigre and opener Reagon on the night before the 2004 election. He said it was a night filled with hope and tons of anti-Bush protest songs. I can’t even imagine how brutal that memory must have been a day later.
Random Notebook Dump: Almost forgot this. Comedian Dan Fishback and a choir of four friends randomly and hilariously recited the message that Hanna left on Mike Watt’s answering machine to decline to appear on his 1995 album Ball-Hog or Tugboat?. I would have awarded bonus points if they read the ridiculous lyrics to Bikini Kill’s “Liar.”