VagFest 5: Those Women About to Rock, We Salute You
Gone (hopefully) are the days when underground rockers like Kathleen Hanna, Exene Cervenka, Kim Deal, and Kim Gordon needed to prove themselves as musicians.
It's no longer about women in rock; it's just about women making good rock. Oh, and having a damn good time doing it.
It's one of the reasons the annual VagFest not only has survived five years but keeps getting bigger and better each time out, with the 2014 version bringing in up-and-coming national acts Bleeding Rainbow and White Murder to headline the two-night, two-venue event.
"Music has always been a way for me to express myself and feel empowered," says festival organizer Jackie Cruz, who also will perform in Man Hands on the fest's opening night. "I want other women to feel the same way. It's also a nice way to bring ladies in the music scene together. We grow when we support each other."
Not that they would be discouraged, butpolitics and a rallying cry for women's rights definitely are not the point of the festival, Cruz says.
"It's meant to be a lighthearted and fun atmosphere where we can celebrate women and music," Cruz says.
More than 20 bands, solo acts, and DJs will take the stage at Yucca Tap Room and neighboring all-ages venue 51 West in Tempe. Cruz also is trying something new for VagFest this year — a marketplace set up inside 51 West that showcases zines, records, and the work of local visual artists and photographers.
"I wanted to get more creative people involved. And I pretty much chose my favorite bands and then a few newer or lesser-known groups. Some [bands] are too good to not ask back," Cruz says on returning acts like French Girls, Girl Boner, Numb Bats, Scorpion vs. Tarantula, and The Sex, whose set Saturday night at the Yucca also will serve as the band's record-release show.
First-time participants include Cherie Cherie, Sister Lip, and Katterwaul from Tucson. Cruz also will take part in a one-off tribute, Saturday night at the Yucca, to Bikini Kill, the pioneering early '90s riot grrl band.
But the highlights of VagFest may well be provided by touring acts Bleeding Rainbow from Philadelphia and White Murder from Long Beach, California.
Cruz caught Bleeding Rainbow at a good time. The buzz band released a full-length record a couple of months ago and is stronger than ever. Initially called Reading Rainbow, the band started as a husband-and-wife duo recording lo-fi bedroom songs.
"You can definitely tell from traveling around the country that more bands with women and more bands with strong feminist messages thrive on the coasts," says bassist/vocalist Sarah Everton says. "But with events like VagFest, it's not limited to only major East and West Coast cities.
Everton trades vocal duties with husband Rob Garcia, creating a beautiful mix of harmonies over supercharged rock. The band's older recordings are rooted in shoegaze and noise rock, but Bleeding Rainbow's latest effort, Interrupt, expands on those influences to create a more accessible sound, sometimes reminiscent of Superchunk.
At a glance, Bleeding Rainbow may appear to be a cutesy husband-and-wife duo, but there's much more to them. Everton wants to avoid these stereotypes, as well as avoid being pigeonholed as a female bassist.
"The generalization that girls always play bass is an outdated cliché. I used to play drums in our band for three years before switching to bass," says Everton. "I felt resentment toward [this cliché] and still do."
Jaunty California punks White Murder share the same notion. And co-lead vocalist Hannah Blumenfeld reminds us that there's more to feminism in rock than gals with guitars. The burden is on the listener, she says.
"There's just so much content out there. Maybe it's the actual responsibility of the consumer to turn off and tune out messages that belittle the empowerment of humans," she says.
Like Bleeding Rainbow, the band comprises two vocalists — Blumenfeld and Mary Animal. Together, they cover topics like sex and partying with rapid-fire vocals that sound like a modern answer to Siouxsie and the Banshees, but with an even stronger punk influence. Picture Siouxsie singing for Toys That Kill.
White Murder's new self-titled album is teeming with the Los Angeles sound. Without looking at the date, this album would be right at home with Southern California predecessors like Adolescents and T.S.O.L., blasting out of a boombox somewhere as young skateboarders test their mettle in an empty pool.
But therein lies the difference: White Murder was released this year, when women are far more prevalent in punk rock. This album would have been an anomaly in 1984, when L.A. punk was, by and large, a boys' club.
Thanks to trailblazers like Exene Cervenka of X, a female-fronted band is no longer something exotic — it's all about equality.
Says VagFest organizer Cruz: "There are a ton of ladies making great music out there, so I know women in bands is not a rare occurrence these days."
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