Back in January, the London based Black feminist punk band Big Joanie announced their first US tour, and my partner, Michael, instantly bought us tickets. We discovered the trio during the pandemic, and their 2018 release Sistahs became one of the albums that we listened to on heavy rotation to get us through the rough times in 2020 and beyond. The band formed ten years ago within London’s DIY punk scene, and I greatly recommend spending some time exploring their Bandcamp page, where you can buy some of their early recordings and get a sense of how their sound has evolved over the last decade. Their most recent record, last year’s Back Home (and their first release on Kill Rock Stars) received tons of accolades, including landing a spot on Rolling Stone’s “favorite albums of 2022.”
While their shows this week (they also played a night at Baby’s All Right along with FTA faves, Frida Kill) were their first headlining shows in NYC, they made their official New York debut at the end of April opening for Placebo at Brooklyn Steel (see pics, our review). They were set to return a month later for their own headlining dates before a medical emergency forced them to postpone until July. But the wait was well worth it and they finally arrived at Brooklyn’s Union Pool for a sold out show right as the city was plunged into the swampy summer humidity we love to hate. We got there early to secure a place close to the stage, and we caught a glimpse of the band being interviewed by WFMU’s Suzie Hot Rod off on one side of the venue’s spacious outdoor area before the show. (The interview aired on Suzie’s show “Rock and Roller Derby” on Sunday July 16 and you listen to it through the WFMU online archives.)
The fantastic DC post punk dance band Clear Channel opened up the night, and the trio got the room moving to their irresistible dub grooves in no time. Frontperson Awad Bilal was a diva on the level of Beyoncé meets Big Freedia (without the drag), strong voice shimmering through layers of extra echo effect on the mic while turning to booty shake at the audience, twerking with joy. Bassist Mary Regalado (also of Downtown Boys) and drummer Don Godwin provided the infectious rhythm, constantly moving and rumbling underneath, as well as tight harmonies in back-up vocals. Even the transitions where the rhythm section switched instruments provided moments of revelry, Bilal sang the word “switcheroo” over and over, getting the crowd to clap and dance along. Suffice it to say, Clear Channel is so fucking fun! Bilal told me afterwards that I was giving the band energy from the audience (they definitely had me shaking my thing). I hope to see Clear Channel up in NYC again very soon! (Check out pics from their December 2022 show at TV Eye opening for Hammered Hulls. And yes our EIC Hoos did in fact describe them as “groove-heavy echo-drenched space punk.”)
Clear Channel at Union Pool
With the crowd now properly warmed up and ready, Big Joanie took the stage to cheers even before they started playing. But the room focused in quickly, as they launched into “Cactus Tree” and “Happier Still,” both from Back Home and the small Union Pool stage could barely contain their beauty and energy. Drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone played standing up, her kit occupying the space front and center, with lead singer/guitarist Stephanie Phillips to Taylor-Stone’s right, and bassist/guitarist Estella Adeyeri to her left with their touring guitarist, Vanessa Govinden (of fellow London DIY bands Grunt, Whitelands and Cecelia), positioned behind the band. White flowers adorned the drums and amps.
Taylor-Stone offered most of the in-between song banter, but calling it “banter” hardly does it justice. All three members of Big Joanie are activists as well as musicians, and their political consciousness and experience came through in an electrifying way as Taylor-Stone related stories of the band coming up through the DIY scene in London and further hyped up the crowd by naming what types of change and revolution they are looking for. Namely a revolution for trans people, for Black people, for working people, for queer people, for feminists, and beyond…the crowd roared appreciation at every pause. She urged us to actually do something, to take real action, and encouraged us to read Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, telling us that Angela Davis already figured out exactly how to make these changes happen, all we need to do is read her books and do what she says (indeed!). Phillips smiled as she quipped that even though they are working for change, sometimes they still just had to hate some people and that it’s okay. From there, they played “Used to Be Friends,” one of my favorite tracks off of Sistahs, and such a truthful take on what it feels like to “break up” with a close friend.
The middle of the set featured a series of songs from Back Home, including “Today,” that they just released a new version of featuring Kim Deal (yes, that Kim Deal). Taylor-Stone confessed that recording a song with one of their idols was a lot for “three Black working class girls coming from a squat in London.” As they continued to blaze through “What Are You Waiting For?” and “Your Words,” Adeyeri jumped off the edge of the stage to drop to her knees among the fans, shredding on her guitar as people screamed and filmed it all on their phones. It was clear in that moment that Big Joanie are the rock star idols now, too.
One of the funniest moments of the night came with all three women introducing “It’s You,” a song written for cis male partners who are selfish in bed. Adeyari cheekily chimed in, saying, “Just a little reciprocity, you know? Being open to a few suggestions would be appreciated. Or you know, you do you.” All three of them laughed, and then started to rock the song, and you could see how their friendship and love has fueled what’s so great about their music.
They closed out the set with the gorgeous “Rainfall,” but there was no way the crowd was going home without an encore and they made sure to let the band know they wanted to hear more. After a minute’s break, the band returned to finish the night with their cover of Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky” (a much more discordant and rocking version than their recording of the song, but I so love both), and finally the beautiful anthem “In My Arms,” which they dedicated to the loving welcome that their NYC fans offered. Whew! I got teary at the end with all of this!
Big Joanie at Union Pool
After the show, I ran into Phillips and Adeyari in the bar, and had the opportunity to awkwardly blabber at them about how great the set was, and how much their music has meant to me. I asked them where they were going next (they were playing The Empty Bottle in Chicago the next night, also with Frida Kill), and I wished them a safe journey. Adeyari smiled and gave me a hug, their love and care for their fans being
Big Joanie is such an impressive creative union formed around friendship, around love, around dreams and action toward making this fucked up world better, and seeing them live and meeting them filled me with inspiration. So let’s all read up on our Angela Davis, blast some Big Joanie records, and get out there! Don’t give up.
Scroll down for setlist, pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
Setlist: Cactus Tree, Happier Still, Taut, Used To Be Friends, Confident Man, Today, What Are You Waiting For?, Your Words, Sainted, It’s You, Fall Asleep Encore: Cranes In The Sky (Solange cover), In My Arms