Metro is only six and a half miles from Grant Park as the Mapquest flies, but on Saturday afternoon, it might as well have been located in a different universe.
As a prime example of the forces of marketing, corporatization, politics, and stultifying blandness that are assaulting rock ’n’ roll today held forth to the south, 17 bands comprised of 65 girls ages 8 to 16 took to the storied stage at the venerated North Side rock club to play the song they wrote together and rehearsed throughout the week at the Girls Rock! Chicago summer camp.
The local chapter of this national non-profit endeavor has been wildly growing in popularity over the five years since it started here: As I noted a few weeks ago when I wrote about its seasonal kick-off party, it now has expanded to two week-long sessions each summer. It is staffed largely by volunteers from the local music community, most of whom took the week off from work to offer hands-on guidance to the girls who’d like to follow in their paths–there’s a one-to-one ratio of counselors to campers–but some traveled from as far as Baltimore to take part because they so strongly believe in the cause.
This is not the usual summertime frolic: The campers work hard for five eight-hour days to hone their chops on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, or the DJ’s turntables, plus vocals. Some have played an instrument before, perhaps taking lessons at one of the Old Town School of Folk Music’s many fine kid-centric classes (say, the sessions on Beatles or Ramones songs) or at one of the dwindling number of excellent independent musical instrument stores that offer individual lessons (one of the best, should you happen to live out that way, is Fat Kat Guitars in Carpentersville), but others have never plucked an amplified note. More importantly, though, they learn to compromise, communicate, share ideas, and make music together, at the same time that they’re boosting their individual confidence and self-esteem. (The few non-musical activities at camp include useful stuff like a lesson in the basics of self-defense.)
Though camp officially ended on Sunday when each band went into Bucktown’s Engine Music Studios to preserve their tune for multi-tracked posterity (and a good man studio manager John Humphrey is for extending that opportunity), the Girls Rock! counselors clearly value the old-school notion that the most important thing about great rock ’n’ roll is living fully in the moment, and the Metro gig was the high point of the week. Kicking things off on Saturday afternoon, counselor Mary Beth Brennan of Baggy Time and the Baby Magic introduced each ensemble in her inimitable, indefatigable way, seemingly as excited to be onstage as the junior rockers were.
If I had to generalize, the bands had a tendency to sound a little No Wave circa 1979, with an emphasis on primitive yet slightly skewed rhythms and occasional bursts of atonality underscoring that it really ain’t that far from sophisticated free-jazz skronk to the most elemental and essential punk-rock chaos, as the late rock critic saint Lester Bangs often said. In other words, Lydia Lunch’s immortal Teenage Jesus and the Jerks could well have been the (unintentional) role model for many of these bands—which, in my book, is a very good thing indeed. (Check out their anthemic tune “Orphans,” kids. It’s a classic.)
Bearing in mind the latitude I would cut any band playing its first ever gig—up to and including the world premier of the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures at the same venue at the end of last year’s Lollapalooza insanity—I have to say there wasn’t a single loser combo that took the stage. In fact, the only criticisms I would make were of the proliferation of clichéd stage patter (everyone should be able to do better than “Hello, Chicago!”) and the lack of fuzz boxes (everything sounds better with a dollop of distortion, in my opinion). But what do I know? Old-school feminist or no, I arguably am part of the male hegemony that still dominates rock ’n’ roll, and Girls Rock! is all about no boys or dads–and I should note in the interest of journalistic disclosure that I was one of these–are allowed to do anything except listen, no way, no how, and good riddance to us.
So what did the bountiful audience on Saturday hear? Overworld got things going in a vaguely punk-funk vein, followed by Highway Monkeys, who had a goth undertone in their tune “Black Roses and Deadly Rainbows.” TNT was remarkable for its exquisite lead bass, while Sir or Madame really distinguished itself with an instant soul-funk hit called “Lemonade, Lemonade” that included a rousing breakdown accentuated by enthusiastic audience handclaps.Black Aura
favored a classic-rock groove and dressed the part in matching outfits based on the enduring black metal T-shirt, andHello Crazy
paid homage to the seductive power of the groove with a song called “The Best Beat” and lyrics that expanded in the last verse to insert a surprising philosophical message beyond the notion of partying hearty and dancing furiously (“Listen to the beat you have inside… Live for now and never say never!”).
Attention Detention railed in punk-rock fury against the forces that would keep its members down—or at least detain them after school; Button unleashed a pop-punk ode to romantic obsession entitled “Everything I Look at Turns Into You”; Her enhanced a nice piece of psychedelic pop with some spot-on three-part vocal harmonies, and Quarteroy returned to the pop-punk tip for another inspiring declaration of empowerment (“I’m in my own world/I’m not just a little girl!”).
Adding an unexpected flashback to the finger-snapping hipness of the underground coffee houses of the ’50s, Next Door Neighbors crafted a Beat-poetic/trip-hop portrait of a man on a bench that, swear to goddess, could have been an outtake from Iggy Pop’s 2009 album in that vein, “Préliminaires.”
By now, we were into the bands formed by more the experienced returning campers, and each one was better than the last. Black Stone Radio delivered a pseudo-stoner-rock instrumental; Y.O.U. (Yesterday on Uranus) was a hard-hitting guitar-and-drums duo that brought to mind Rebecca Gates’ Spinanes; the aptly named Suburban Deformity burst onto the stage with a thrash-punk explosion (“Our song is called ‘Censorship Sucks’—because it does!”), and Helvetica presented a delightful example of psychedelic pop-funk called “Rain on My Parade” that was wonderfully resonant of Prince at the time of “Around the World in a Day.”
Reverse the Curse did justice to its leader’s Nirvana T-shirt with an explosion of melodic grunge that, I can assure you, was much better than anything on the last album by Hole. And the quartet Zombie Masquerade gave us a tune so powerful that it brought to mind the much bigger musical assault of Arcade Fire, thanks in large part to the potent talents of front woman Ruadhan Ward, who also stole the show in the short documentary about Girls Rock! Chicago by talented filmmaker Sarah Moshman that recently aired on WTTW-Ch. 11.
Finally, everything wrapped up in the celebratory mold of “The Last Waltz” as all of the performers took to the stage to belt out the newly penned “Girls Rock! Chicago Theme Song,” with the chorus finding all of the girl rockers proudly thrusting their fists in the air as they declared, “Girls! Rock!! Chic-a-gooo!!!”
Remembering once again that this advice comes from the hegemony, I would encourage all of the participants—of the day’s events, of the earlier summer session, and of every other to date or to come—to continue making that kind of joyful noise in whatever setting they can; it is one of the things that makes life worth living. Also, remember that no matter what kind of bulls*t creeps in to distract you from that goal—and here I once again look to the events to the south last weekend—to strive to uphold the ideal that rock ’n’ roll at its very best is a defiant individual expression within the embrace of a truly alternative and fundamentally local community. And the enemy is any force that tries to impinge on that.
Thanks to Ruby for help with the photos.