Bikini Kill returned to New York this past weekend for two shows at Pier 17 and Irving Plaza, playing to sold out, adoring crowds on both nights. I was able to catch night two and it was like magic all over again after seeing them in 2019. And while it’s true that there are a lot of bands that have meant a lot to me over the course of my life, without a doubt very few have meant as much as Bikini Kill has and they are top three status (Fugazi and Nirvana are their very fitting company).
I bought my first record in 1995 (the “New Radio/Demirep/Rebel Girl” 7inch) and ever since then and in every era of my life, their music has somehow been there to comfort me, inspire me, enlighten me and so much more, serving as the soundtrack to whatever I was feeling be it rage or happiness or sorrow or elation. I am technically old enough to have seen them the first time around and was listening to them in the 90s while they were still active, but I was never able to catch them back then because I was considered too young by my decidedly unpunk parents and I was not allowed to venture to NYC (or anywhere else) to see them play.
So it is not a stretch at all to say that these reunion shows have meant the world to me and I’m sure to many other people my age who had a similar near miss experiences with the band in the 90s. After decades of fandom that even included playing guitar in a Bikini Kill cover band at one point, I was elated to finally see them in 2019 (see pics from Terminal 5 and King’s Theater) and it fulfilled a very long standing wish. It was worth every moment of waiting even if I was middle aged and tired (and maybe just a little bit jaded) when it finally happened, certainly no longer that scrappy fresh faced teenager who bought their 7inch with her left over lunch money.
Of course I was very much excited for the 2020 shows, and had been planning to rock out with friends again and maybe even hit a few other cities besides New York, when Covid came to town and everything came crashing down, forcing a wait of over two years before the tour could take place. While the wait was obviously shorter to see them from then to now vs from the 90s to 2019, it felt strangely longer and more anxious because of everything that happened in the time between their initial reunion and this tour being able to finally go forward. The tour was also not without setbacks as multiple cancelations were forced while band members and crew dealt with Covid cases along the way, in fact having to cancel the shows immediately after the NYC run due to another band member testing positive. So with all of that and with all of the uncertainty and pain surrounding the pandemic, particularly the recent cruelty of the Supreme Court overturning Roe Vs Wade, the stakes felt even higher this time, the band and their music needed more now than ever. Kathleen Hanna remarked specifically on the ruling saying “the first time we go on tour in a thousand million years and that happens,” adding that they’ve been playing Pro Choice shows “ever since we were a band.”
Indeed being at a Bikini Kill show right now at this juncture in history felt like a salve to me and to my friends certainly and I’m sure to just about everyone else there—an audience of all ages from kids with their parents to Gen Z aged young adults, middle aged folks like me, and even older. The band played through a 26 song set, starting out with the zippy banger “Carnival” and hitting many other fan favorites along the way like “Alien She,” “Jigsaw Youth,” and “Magnet” (which is a personal favorite), the audience screaming lyrics back to each and every song. Tobi Vail also took her turn at the mic for several songs, the fans loving when she was singing lead for beloved songs like “I Hate Danger,” and “Tell Me So.” They concluded their set with the iconic song “Rebel Girl,” before returning for their encore of “Double Dare Ya,” and “Suck My Left One,” which saw the entire room hit a frenzied fever pitch, Hanna with her middle finger raised while she screamed SUCK! MY! LEFT! ONE!
There were also songs that were called out for that the band was not playing, with Hanna stating that while there plenty of songs in their catalog that were still relevant, and in some cases even more relevant today than when they were released, that there were just some that they didn’t want to play anymore. She elaborated when someone called out specifically for “Liar” (because the government is lying to us), “yes the government is lying to us but I don’t like singing that song anymore I’m sorry, I just don’t,” going on to say that she thinks there are some songs with lyrics that are bad, “some of those lyrics fucking suck and I never want to sing them again and ‘Liar’ is one of those songs.” While I am a big fan of that song, I can understand it must be difficult to return to work that was made 30 years prior or that you don’t feel is your best even if fans relate to it, and can respect the band for not wanting to play it.
Original guitarist Billy Karren has not participated in the reunion shows and his role had been filled by Erica Dawn Lyle for the 2019 shows, but she was absent from these performances. Her place in the lineup was filled by guitarist Sara Landeau of The Julie Ruin who also played drums for two of the songs that Tobi Vail sang lead vocals on while Kathi Wilcox took over guitar duties and Hanna was on bass.
The show was opened by folky, alt country singer songwriter Jim Andralis and his band The Syntonics. Andralis is a therapist by day and this was something that ended up being a theme throughout the night, talking about therapy and its benefits. He is a good friend of Hanna and she dedicated “For Tammy Rae” (originally for her friend Tammy Rae Carland) to him during Bikini Kill’s set, saying “it’s not every day a person gets to play a show with their best friend,” adding that she couldn’t watch his set because his songs “make me cry and have you seen my eye makeup? No!” but saying that she did see his soundcheck.
In trying times, one thing we can always return to is punk rock and the idea that joy IS an act of resistance. Rage can be beautiful and happiness can be ugly and however you want to feel about it all is valid. I can think of very few bands that embody this spirit like Bikini Kill does and I will never forget the oasis that that 14 year old girl just starting to figuring herself out found when I put that very first record on the turntable all those years ago. When I heard the insistent smack of Tobi’s flams, the chugging guitar riff, and the words “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborbood, I got news for you, SHE IS! They say she’s a dyke but I know she is my best friend yeah!” everything I thought I knew was challenged and a whole new world opened up to me.
While I knew I was on to something and that I was hearing something revolutionary, I don’t think I realized in the moment that my entire life had changed from that point on; I think it took me a while longer to realize that, but it most certainly did. In that moment and in punk rock—very specifically Bikini Kill’s music—I knew I had truly found my place and a sense of purpose along with a feeling that somehow, some way, everything would be alright. Seeing them now is a reminder of that moment and all the moments in between; it will never not feel like coming home.
See vids, setlist and pics from the show below.
Setlist: Carnival, Don’t Need You, New Radio, Jigsaw Youth, Feels Blind, I Hate Danger**, In Accordance to Natural Law**, Demirep, Tony Randall, Reject All American, Alien She, Sugar, Rah! Rah! Replica, Hamster Baby**, Tell Me So**, This Is Not A Test, Capri Pants, Resist Psychic Death, Outta Me, For Only**, Distinct Complicity**, Magnet, Lil Red, Rebel Girl
**Tobi Vail on lead vocals
Encore: Double Dare Ya, Suck My Left One
Scroll down for pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
JIM ANDRALIS & THE SYNTONICS