Photo Credit: Robin Laananen
When a beloved band reunites, the first critical shots fired are usually aimed at whether the involved players will be capable of rekindling the energy that made them relevant during their heyday. Of course, this a circuitous debate that neither audience nor artist can win. The cultural context in which a performance or piece of art is initially delivered matters as much as the art itself, so the regeneration of a previous high-water mark is not only unrealistic, but undesirable. While our collective craving for nostalgic, reanimated moments is a natural impulse, the end result is rarely fully satisfying for either party beyond that immediate, comforting moment of familiarity. But what happens if the art was actually ahead of its time to begin with? When Lori Barbero, Kat Bjelland, and Maureen Herman unleashed Fontanelle in 1992, it was an anguished, angry, and persuasively primal call-to-arms for an intelligent audience who was ready for ferocity and feminism to mix. Ascribing a “grunge” or “grrl” label to their work never fully made sense, simply because it lacked the classic metal-meets-punk underpinnings that defined the former and was light years beyond the consciousness-raising rants that spawned the latter. Co-produced by Bjelland and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, and named in part for the vulnerable soft spot of a newborn baby’s skull, Fontanelle resided in a much darker, heavier, and downright terrifying space. The Babes didn’t neatly split the atom that generated alternative rock, they splintered it, letting their fury around themes of violence, motherhood, sisterhood, and betrayal shoot out like shrapnel, illuminating ills, but making no promises about alleviating them. In terms of pure, cathartic storytelling, they had more in common with N.W.A. than Bikini Kill.
Perhaps it is that unflinching, preternaturally potent gaze that has attracted individuals like Berlin-based performance artist Peaches, who has placed herself front and center at the tiny stage of Pappy & Harriet’s for Babes’ first live show since their dissolution in 2002. It is an unseasonably chilly night at the remote Pioneertown venue outside of Palm Springs.
If Tom Waits, Lemmy Kilmister, and Merle Haggard built a clubhouse together, it would look and feel like this. It’s remote, grimy, sexy, and all the rooms in the vintage-furnished adjacent hotel have been sold out for weeks. It smells like smoked brisket and a utopian feminist manifesto realized. Everyone in attendance came here with a purpose. The atmosphere inside fits the cliched description of electric, down to a smattering of tech difficulties and a sold-out crowd so on edge that I encounter one young woman in the bathroom verging on tears because she’s so overwhelmed by anticipation.
When their 45-minute set commences, it is not only as if no time had passed since the early ‘90s, but that they are simply arriving in an era that fits them seamlessly. The War on Women is indeed raging, and signature songs like “Bluebell,” “Bruise Violet,” and perhaps most viscerally, “Handsome Gretel,” sound even more appropriately and gloriously incensed. From a strictly technical standpoint, the musicianship hasn’t faltered—muscle memory is clearly serving them well, with Barbero’s deafening drumming operating at full clip, and Herman’s adroit, tastefully aggressive basslines giving the songs their requisite iron bones. Perhaps most impressively, Bjelland’s voice appears unweathered by time: she roars forth with her trademark wails, still hitting all of those terrifying highs and sinister lows with the grim grace that was the band’s most distinctive calling card.
Two days later in Los Angeles, Lori Barbero’s brother ushers me past a long line of superfans already in line at the Roxy, an iconic LA venue known for its hair metal transgressions, but blessed by balanced acoustics and forgiving sightlines. It’s a logical next step after the spiritual elasticity of Pappy and Harriet’s, but undeniably Hollywood in atmosphere. As I make my way upstairs to the dressing rooms, where the Babes are getting ready for a photo shoot and to play for a much larger, peer-studded crowd, I inadvertently absorb their anxiety. Bjelland is futzing with her stockings and nursing a PBR. Barbero is as gregarious and warm as I’ve always heard her described by our mutual friends. Herman is quietly cool—not aloof, but seemingly focused inward, an understandable posture, given the pressure cooker waiting for them downstairs.
Conversation glides quickly from the unspectacular nature of their dissolution (“It just ran its course,” said Bjelland) to the outside factors that motivated the reunion (a colleague of Herman’s had been urging the resurrection since 2006 and helped seal the deal last summer with a practical offer of fiscal sponsorship via his tech company Powersniff). What is abundantly clear is they are truly thrilled to be back in the room together, pre-performance nerves be damned.
“Nobody else in my life had I shared such unique experiences with,” says Herman, a gentle smile crossing her face. “I just missed them.”
When they began rehearsals in August, it was a pleasant surprise to all of them how quickly they fell back into the groove. “It felt really regular—it wasn’t a big moment,” explains Herman. “We started with ‘He’s My Thing’ and it just kicked ass right away.”
“It all appeared that we could hang out together, but we didn’t know if we could play together,” asserts Barbero, ultimately agreeing. “It was way easier than I thought it would be. The muscle memory came back.”
The equal footing and escapist nature of the warm-up gig at Pappy & Harriet’s was a thoughtful strategy that paid off. “The stage was really small and people were really polite,” says Bjelland. “They didn’t bang into you even though they were right up in your face!”
“I think it was good that we were on a stage that was at our level,” adds Herman. “This way it felt like how it used to.”
As we discuss the range of locales that fans and friends were traveling from to see them play (Israel and Belgium among them), mention of Seattle arises, and Bjelland interjects to confirm that Barbero has included all the women from Seven Year Bitch on the guest list.
Two hours later, the ladies of Seven Year Bitch are indeed in the house, sequestered in a reserved booth they are sharing with members of the recently reunited L7. Buzz Osbourne and Dale Crover of the Melvins are milling about, as is Distillers’ leader-turned-solo artist Brody Dalle-Homme, and nearly every member of Hole (save for the conspicuously absent Courtney Love), along with elder punk stateswomen Exene Cervenka and Lydia Lunch. Herman’s eleven-year-old daughter Anna watches from the wings, ears safely shielded in industrial headphones.
The electric energy is back, but logically scaled up to Hollywood-sized proportions, complete with a celebrity-helmed introduction by Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, a longtime friend of the band. Reflecting on their shared time on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour, Morello praises them for “rocking as hard as they were kind,” and lovingly describing childhood comrade Herman (they grew up together in Libertyville, Illinois) as a “brilliant, talented, and unruly little sister.”
When the Babes take the stage to rip through their reunion set for the second time, it’s all still there. Pappy & Harriet’s was not a lucky fluke. Of course, there’s no need to take my word for this; an avalanche of video evidence became available online afterwards. What struck me the most, however, was the afterglow—not of the band, but of the audience. When I turned around towards the booth occupied by Seven Year and L7, the entire space looks lit up by sheer glee. The women are beaming broadly, eyes collectively glittering and looking not unlike a group of Reagan-era high schoolers who had just witnessed their first Fugazi show. They appear not merely elated, but truly inspired [an aside: I suggested to the Babes during our pre-show chat that a reunion tour featuring themselves, L7, and Seven Year Bitch would be wise—they did not argue].
Speaking via phone from her Minneapolis home a couple of weeks later, Barbero is preparing for a houseful of visiting musician guests from her former home in Austin, but sounds relaxed and relieved that the shows went so well. “When you don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s stressful.” While age and a previous injury mean that she has to temper her signature move of throwing her head back every time she hits, she’s also joyously moved by how much she missed the cathartic nature of drumming. “I can’t do that to my neck anymore and I can’t wait to get some body work done later this week, but I feel so wonderful—I had forgotten that this really is one of the best feelings in the world.”
When I reach Herman a few days after that in L.A., she sounds like a woman willfully transformed. “The difference between how I felt before the Roxy show and after is pretty huge,” she explains. “The crowd reaction at Pappy & Harriet’s was right at our level, and at the Roxy, it was more of a formal show. The stage was sparse and we’re spread out a lot more. The crowd was so intense. In my mind, we were playing a good show—I fucked up three times, I was very aware of that,” she says with a laugh. “I was happy when we got to the last song.” But it was the reaction afterwards that really threw her.
“I had NO idea what kind of reaction would be waiting for us on the other end,” she continues. “I thought people were being nice, I thought it was just gratuitous at first, but I started seeing the difference in people’s eyes—people were just blown away. And Tom Morello kept texting me from the Rainbow afterward tell me to come over. I go over there and he’s holding court at this table at the Rainbow and said ‘sit down, I have something to say to you.’ He went on for 45 minutes talking about how incredible the show was, how hard we rocked, how nothing was gonna be the same anymore. This is Tom—I’ve known him for a long time and he doesn’t talk like this. He said, ‘I don’t think you understand—people don’t play that hard anymore. That was the heaviest rock show I have seen in recent memory.’ Coming from Tom, that’s pretty amazing.”
Morello is also still protective of his unruly little sister. “He also said, ‘This comes with a warning. You can do things the way you did, or you can do something different.’ He just encouraged us to really talk as a band…to be really healthy, smart, and really aware of how lucky we are to have this opportunity right now and seize the moment.’ He was very serious about it. It was almost unsettling.”
She is humbled by the endurance of their music’s appeal and the loyalty of their fans, but also keenly aware of the way it has the potential to live in stronger relief in 2015 and beyond. “When you take us out of the time we were in and put us in now, it’s a really strong sound, whereas back then we were maybe one of many bands who sounded that strong.”
The future holds European dates, and yes, eventual U.S. dates to yet be announced, but Herman is also cognizant of the impact the reunion will have on her daughter, a force of nature that is clearly at the center of her world. “It gets hard to have your mom go from being your regular mom to all of the sudden diving back into this life she had before you were born and all the activity that goes with it. So even though it’s exciting—for her, it’s different. When she saw how intensely the crowd reacted, I think it hit her that Mommy’s gonna be going on tour and she’s gonna be around less. She was definitely impressed and proud of us. I’ve seen pictures of her watching the show and there’s this really great proud smile on her face.”