Babes in Toyland are from Minneapolis, Minnesota, but one might have thought they were L.A.’s own last night. Anticipation was palpable at the Roxy for the second show of a much-touted reunion tour that began a couple nights previously at Pappy & Harriet's in Joshua Tree. It seemed as much a reunion for the people in the room as it was the gals on stage, as the club overflowed with excited friends, fans and rock n’ roll elite.
The power trio of singer/guitarist Kat Bjelland, drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Maureen Herman were hugely influential to heavy music, a fact made clear in a reverent and raucous introduction by their old Lollapalooza tourmate, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello.
Morello ended his passionately penned tribute by saying, “They were riot grrls, now they’re riot moms!” But the Babes always had more sonic layers to spew and statements to make than any riot grrl relegation might have suggested. Their feminist leanings were (and are) part of who they are, both lyrically and instrumentally, but their music had nuances that were sometimes overshadowed by their fashion choices and yes, their sex.
Last night, however, it was all about the music for these thrashing mamas. They opened their set with the growling grind of “Jungle Train” off of their critically lauded sophomore album, Fontanelle, and followed it up with the pouncing riffs and hooky hellion chorus of “He’s My Thing,” off their debut Spanking Machine. While “Thing” is more an ironic love song and warning from one gal to another than an empowerment anthem, its badass-ness made it their signature tune back in the day, and last night it held up big time. Their angriest, most dissonant tracks slayed on stage, as well: the screeching bitch fits of “Bluebell,” the garage-y growl of “Oh Yeah,” the sultry stomp of “Sweet 69” during the encore.
“Bruise Violet” is another of the band’s best-known numbers and it was maybe the fiercest highlight. Bjelland has always denied that the track is about Courtney Love as has been theorized, but it’s widely known that the two were frenemies during and after the band’s inception. Love obviously borrowed from Toyland’s tempestuous themes and Bjelland's vocal style, and of course, she’s not alone. It came as no surprise that Hole’s Eric Erlandson was in the crowd last night, along with Exene Cervenka, Lydia Lunch and L7’s Donita Sparks.
The set was short, probably because the band only started rehearsing fairly recently. But Herman and Barbero held down the rhythms with a heavy metal-ish intensity and force. Their contributions to the music make for a solid base, but it’s relatively simple and raw in many ways. The beautiful complexity and brutal heart of Babes is and always was Kat Bjelland. The contrast of her cute persona, moody stage presence and primal sound was as disconcerting as it was fascinating when the band broke onto the music scene in the late '80s/early '90s. Decades later, it’s what a lot of people still remember.
Last night, the singer wore a simple dark-hued dress and long brown hair. But her still-ravaging guitar work and insane vocal range proved once and for all that she — and the band — never needed the novelty of kinderwhore to captivate, or the “grrl” label to start a riot.
Set list below:
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