Although it's admittedly kinda fun putting Lilith Fair and FoxVag Fest in the same sentence, the two music expos couldn't be more dissimilar once you remove the female-heavy rosters.
Lilith Fair was started in 1997 by Canadian adult-alternative chanteuse Sarah McLachlan as a response to the commercial radio dial — which even at that advanced date would not play more than two different female artists in a row. The Fair enjoyed three years of record box office earnings before disappearing for a lengthy spell. In 2010, a failed attempt to revive the brand resulted in sluggish ticket sales, canceled shows, and its founder declaring the concept dead because of "changing audience views and expectations" (and she was busy making unwitting late-night television viewers cry for the Humane Society).
A clear local indicator, albeit on a much smaller scale, of just how audience expectations had changed came earlier that year on April 22, when the first FoxVag Fest was held at the Palo Verde Lounge in Tempe. God knows how many Years of the Woman have been ticked off the calendar in between, but almost no one even looks at the gender of a band anymore. And yet FoxVag Fest, started by Phoenician punk rocker Jackie Cruz, was in direct response to a Colorado all-female music concert series called Titwrench Fest.
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FoxVag Fest III is scheduled for Thursday through Saturday, March 22 to 24, at Palo Verde Lounge and Yucca Tap Room in Tempe.
Yes. Titwrench Fest.
"It sounded like a lot of fun. I thought we needed something like Titwrench here," says Cruz, a self-confessed shy musician of 20-something years who suddenly was seized with the impresario spirit upon hearing the words "tit" and "wrench" compounded.
"I was really impressed by the organization of Titwrench, all the time and thought that was put into it," she sayss. "Although I hadn't even been to one, I could already tell [it's how I wanted] FoxVag Fest to operate. I also like how diverse it is. They incorporate dancers, puppeteers, performance artists, poets, and crafters into the shows.
"FoxVag just focuses on music as of right now, but I'm not averse to putting in different styles and genres: This year we have a couple of acoustic solo acts, a one-woman blues band, an indie '60s-esque girl group, a surf band, '90s grunge, and so on. I realize not everyone is into punk. There's just something really exciting about girls that play punk music, to me. It was my first love, and I decided at a really young age that I had to play it, so it holds a special place in my heart. Punk has always been my obsession. That's the main thing I like to do."
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Cruz has wielded a buzzing ax in a variety of punk outfits, ranging from the two-thirds girl group The Pods (with friend Dusty Rose) to Man Hands and Mangled Men, in which Cruz does not have such Surf City boy-to-girl ratios.
"The bands' names were meant to be comical. No hidden reason behind why they both have 'men' in the titles," Cruz fesses. "I actually made a joke that I want to name my next band Leaders of Men after my favorite Warsaw/Joy Division song, and then I'll have three bands with the word 'man/men' in the title. A little silly, I suppose.
"In Mangled Men [with James Fella and Paul Arambula] we're a little louder, noisier and looser (in a good way), it's stress-free and fun. With Man Hands [with Marc Berry, Matt Spastic, and Steve Sleaze], my co-songwriter/boyfriend, Marc, definitely likes things a certain way. I've had to up my game a little and play things I normally wouldn't, weirder chords, and different strumming patterns. It's a cleaner sound — so I've had to learn how to not rely so much on distortion and effects and focus more on my actual playing. It's been a challenge but definitely helpful."
Something of a late bloomer, Cruz didn't play her first show until she was 23, practically ancient in all-ages terms.
"I've been playing about six years. I tried starting bands but was unsuccessful for many, many years. I think at the beginning, I was very nervous and very insecure and not confident in my playing. It was hard for me to go out of my way and ask people to put us on shows," she says. "It's the weirdest feeling to put yourself out there. You don't want to come off like an arrogant asshole. You know, 'Yeah, put my band on your show; I know we would fit well.' At the same time, you have to get yourself out there."
Regardless, in making the adjustment from performer to performer/festival producer, a certain amount of ego subjugation is necessary.
"You don't have as much to worry about if you're just playing a show. When I put together a show, I want the touring band to get the most attention, so they can sell some merch. So my band will take the back of the hand and give the touring band the best slot because they deserve it and have traveled very far to play here."
As for future Fests, Cruz has a wish list which includes Grass Widow, Geneva Jacuzzi ("I'm going to keep harassing her until she says yes. She does awesome, weird experimental dance post-punk stuff. She's a badass."), Nite Jewel, The Coathangers, River City Tanlines, Scout Niblet, and Party Photographers, just to name a few. This year's notable draws include Becky Lee and Drunk Foot ("A one-woman band; she's amazing and fun to watch"), Nights of Joy ("From Denver, a FoxVag really good trio that remind people of the Breeders"), Lust Cats of the Gutter, and Acorn Bcorn from Tucson.
Coming during such a cooch-sensitive time as FoxVag Fest 3 does in 2012, with the GOP's blatant attempt to silence women and their reproductive rights, people might think that the Fest has a manifesto for political action and discourse, but it turns out the timing is serendipitous more than anything else.
"Naturally, I didn't plan it that way, but I'm glad we're doing it while all this is going on. My friend actually messaged me the other night asking if I'd be interested in politicizing the rock 'n' roll. I think it's very important for woman to speak out against what is happening right now. I just think it's unbelievable that I have to fight for the right to know what's going on with my own body. It feels like we're going back in time. A lot of the ladies I know feel very strongly about this and will be handing out fliers at the show talking to people about the Arizona 'Unite Against the War on Women' rally on April 28. It will be a good venue to get the word out and spread awareness. "
So there you have it, an apolitical music festival, started not because of any gender bias but rather a sense of female camaraderie, becomes political on its third go-round. The Fox prefix is there to soften the edges a bit.
"Yeah, I came up with it, but there was a little drama involved. Without going into too much detail . . . It was originally Foxfest but I thought that focused too much on appearance. I suggested changing it to Vagfest, but there was a little opposition to that, so we compromised and settled on FoxVag. It's taken a little time, but the name has grown on me."
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Does Cruz ever run into any opposition printing those fliers? Despite their name, Kinko's can be prudish!
She laughs and shakes her head. "But the dude that helped me did seem a little weirded out by one of the flier designs. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's the cover art of the album Penis Envy by Crass, so, yeah, I got a few weird looks."
Maybe this'll inspire dudes to have their own brotherhood of the traveling pants festival. Let's call it . . . Dickfest!
"As far as the Dickfest goes," she shrugs, "I'll leave that one to the guys."