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
New York City started to look pretty apocalyptic this past Tuesday evening as the smoke from Canadian wildfires blew south. The setting sun took on an other-worldly red-orange hue and the air smelled like a bonfire. As I walked from the subway to Racket, confused people blocked the sidewalks, taking pictures of the haze. Despite the ominous situation outside, the evening of raucous yet melodic music raised everyone’s spirits, a testament to the unique talents of both groups of musicians. Note to self: when looking for a soundtrack of perseverance in challenging times, look to Bully and Sub*T. Got it!
The Brooklyn-based quartet Sub*T started out the night, getting the crowd moving with catchy guitar riffs, driving drums, and tight vocal harmonies from guitarist Jade Alcantara and bassist Grace Bennett (who are also the lead songwriters of the project). I had the pleasure of catching Sub*T back in October, opening for The Linda Lindas at Music Hall of Williamsburg. The crowd for that show included more girls under the age of 12 than I’ve ever experienced at a concert, but the Racket audience was definitely different demographically. Alcantara sarcastically gave “love” to the men up front at one point, saying “shout out to the wall of men up front” who, it should be noted, made not one effort to move to let shorter folks like myself or any non-men see better. (Remember “girls to the front”? Guess not.) She also mentioned that the show was the first in a while for Sub*T, and that they were playing out with a new drummer for the first time who did a fantastic job. Alicia Bognanno of Bully recorded, produced, and mixed Sub*T’s debut EP So Green in 2021, and it was clear on Tuesday how extremely honored Sub*T was to share a stage with her.
Back in 2013, Bully began as a trio with Bognanno as frontwoman (vocals/guitar), central songwriter, and producer of their 2014 self titled EP and 2015 debut album, Feels Like. She has weathered many storms since then, including being diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder and getting sober. She’s also grown as an artist, claiming Bully fully as a solo project with 2020’s LP, Sugaregg. The lengthy set at Racket on Tuesday featured songs from all four albums, taking the riveted audience on a tour through her discography, with a special focus on the most recent album, Lucky For You, released via Sub Pop on June 2nd (read our review).
Bully at Racket (photo by Kate Hoos)
The set began with “Where to Start” (from Sugaregg), the fuzzy guitars growling and Bognanno’s signature raspy wail ringing out over the bouncing crowd. The lyrics say she doesn’t know where to start, but Bognanno and company knew exactly where to begin and where they were taking us; everyone in that room got the joke. The next four songs jumped back to Feels Like, including “Sharktooth,” a digital edition bonus track from the album (that initially appeared on their 2014 EP) that is a triumphant celebration of escaping a toxic relationship. They closed out the first phase of the set with the frenetic energy of “Feel the Same” from 2017’s Losing.
From there, the adoring crowd got to hear almost the entirety of Lucky for You mixed throughout the set. Recorded in her hometown of Nashville with producer J.T. Daly, Bognanno took her time with the most recent album, recording the ten songs over the course of seven months, the longest period of time she’s taken on any Bully album to date. She has admitted her discomfort with the slower-paced recording process, sharing on her Bandcamp: “I was freaking out about it at first, because taking my time was so new for me. But a few months in, I realized how crucial that time ended up being. I got songs out of it that I wouldn’t have had otherwise…With every record, I feel more and more secure in terms of doing what I want…For this one, I wanted to be as creative as possible with these songs.”
That creative spark was positively crackling in the air at Racket, with Bognanno smiling between songs, saying that this was her best show ever in New York. A special standout from Lucky for Youon Tuesday was “Days Move Slow,” an elegiac pop-grunge tribute to her beloved dog, Mezzi, who passed away prior to the album coming out. (A picture of Mezzi lovingly adorns the front of Bognanno’s amp.) Other crowd-pleasers from the recent album included the barnstormer “All I Do” and “Lose You” (which on the album is a duet with fellow Nashville musician Sophie Allison, aka Soccer Mommy). They finished off the set with the more political songs, “Ms. America” and the rage-fueled “All This Noise,” which also close out the new album as a pair.
Not content for things to end so soon, the crowd erupted into cheers and didn’t quiet until Bognanno returned to the stage for an encore, solo for the first couple of songs, including “These Days,” a Jackson Browne cover before the rest of the band ran back onstage for one final punk rock ripper, “Milkman,” also off of the first EP (and later Feels Like) bringing the evening full circle.
Bully will be hitting the road this summer with The Pixies and Franz Ferdinand. When Bognanno mentioned the tour, this was met with cheers and someone in the crowd yelled out, “You’re better than them!” She just smiled and said, “Yeah, I can dream.” I would say your dreams are coming true, Alicia!
Scroll down for setlist, pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
Setlist: Where To Start, Trying, Sharktooth, I Remember, Trash, Feel the Same, Change Your Mind, How Will I Know, A Wonderful Life, Hard to Love, Lose You, A Love Profound, All I Do, Days Move Slow, Ms. America, All This Noise Encore: new song (solo), These Days (Jackson Browne cover), Milkman
The NYC-based garage rockers Dr. Ex & the Break-Ups released their debut album What the Hex Is Going On? earlier this spring, and the nine songs speed by at a dizzying fever pitch, like cruising through a high-speed cartoon chase. It’s not surprising that the release is named for an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You (season one, episode six, if you’re curious). The music here shimmies and spins around you with plenty of spooky craziness, wacky humor, and a clear mission of madcap fun. One of the band’s fans, Patrick Marton, described their sound with this question: “What if the Scooby Doo gang was super into garage punk and beat up Question Mark and The Mysterians and stole their instruments?” What if? Clearly, you end up dancing with vampires and werewolves while Dr. Ex and The Break-Ups rock out with the same frantic energy that their cartoon selves apply to solving mysteries
The album kicks off with “Mystery Machine,” an up-tempo track featuring the band’s signature mix of fuzzy guitars, driving bass lines, tight drum fills, and organ-esque freak outs on the keys. A direct homage to the slapstick humor of Scooby Doo is found in the lyrics: “Scooby-Dooby-Dooby / Roll another doobie / Gotta keep it groovy / Gotta keep it moving.” Apparently the crime-fighting dog always has a dime bag on hand so that when things get intense with those ghosts, you can hit a joint and then dance your ass off. Dig it!
The lead single and second track, “Jeepers, It’s the Creeper,” delivers more delirious energy to get you dancing. The song’s video shows the band playing live to a club full of people getting down, intercut with images of the group running through the NYC streets (presumably running away from creepy love). Sometimes the four of them appear with strange bug or alien-like masks, creepy love indeed! The entire sonic whirlwind culminates in a big organ/synth outro which drives the audience wild.
The title track percolates with more pop-focused energy, like a 60s girl group on speed. Once again, the lyrics are describing monster adventures, like what happens when you turn into a werewolf after being cursed by your witchy lover: “Baby, can’t you see I’m turning / My fangs are bloody / My claws are muddy.” The horror unrolls quickly though—at just one minute and fourteen seconds—and then poof, you’re on to the next lively adventure.
The penultimate track, “Hassle in the Castle,” turns the lyrical voice over to a vampire that serves his guests drinks, then gets drunk off their blood. “Well your neck looks so tasty, don’t mind I’ll have a slice / No need to worry, I’ve been vaccinated thrice! / You know I never go outside, it’s really such a hassle / I have all my aperitifs right here inside my castle.” The propulsive rhythms and crazed organ/synth sounds reflect the madness one must feel when getting drunk with Dracula, served up with tight vocal harmonies and a flirty little breakdown section complete with hand claps.
What the Hex Is Going On? finishes off with “No Friend of Mine,” that pushes forward with a repeated ascending hook played on the keys, guitar, and bass simultaneously. Each of the album’s nine songs clock in at under three minutes, and all of them will get you grooving and moving. The band presents their credits with fun aliases: Russ T. Ex (bass & lead vocals), Anky Ex (keys & backup vocals), Johnny Ex (drums & backup vocals), and Justone Ex (guitar), all of whom have played in various NYC bands over the years. There is no doubt that Dr. Ex and the Break-Ups will put on a fantastic live show, and you can catch them at Gold Sounds on Friday June 2 with The Piggies, Donut City, and Momsomnia.
Whether the inspiration is the violence of military states, the hypocrisy of organized religion, or just the wild force of love going always wrong, the Brooklyn-based punk trio Shop Talk heaves and shakes with poetic passion on their debut EP, The Offering (out now on Mon Amie Records). I realize that “poetic” might not be the most common adjective out there to describe punk bands (or even a desired description from the bands themselves sometimes). But Shop Talk’s literary chops— paired with their blistering guitar hooks and their frantic, driving rhythm section—deliver sharp and unapologetic storytelling, where the stakes are often mythic, and the narrator’s heart is almost always hanging out of his ripped open chest, bouncing along on a few tough threads.
The eponymous first song burns creepily bright, like an incantation to a dark power. After a clamor of guitar noise from Jon Garcia, Tristan Griffin’s bass line hypnotizes with slinky zig-zags, and both of them burst into fierce unison vocals: “I’ll set your world alight / with hopes and fears of all the years tonight / creatures of the night / all burning there for you.” Alexander Perelli crashes away on the drums through it all, like a demon afire.
“Black Friar,” the second track, starts out with an insistent bass line, and the guitar rings out under the verse, until the drums really kick in with driving power in the pre-chorus, as the lyrics play with a turn of rhyme that is both playful and disturbing: “and every beatrice is a drip / a bucket of sick / a slip of the lip / draggin’ your brush stroke long.”
“Mirage of Love,” the pre-released single from The Offering, heaves and thrashes, just like the dark waves of the turbulent sea that’s featured in the video for the song. The lyrics run over the roiling ocean imagery, once again putting the band’s talent with words in the foreground: “I’ve searched across the seven seas / i’ve chased each greedy fantasy / la fata she don’t call on me / and she don’t sail for free.” Garcia offered some back story for the track: “The song is loosely based on the legend of La Fata Morgana—a sorceress blamed for luring sailors to their deaths. The narrator knows that the mirage of love ends in catastrophe, but he’s also offended that Morgana hasn’t bothered to seduce him yet. It’s sorta like 53rd and 3rd, really.”
The fourth song and my favorite, “Ramona,” surges with an infectious guitar hook out front in the mix. The moral here seems to be that falling in love with a she-wolf (or a creature of similar ferocity) is a rough road. The lyrics give voice to a desperate guy who will do whatever this lady wants: “I’ll see if you will saw / I’ll abet if you break the law / I’ll see what no one saw / I’ll hear your voice if you come to call.”
The Offering concludes with “Camp Hero,” where the spooky seaside imagery returns, and we learn of sailors being used and abused in the mythic experiment of the USS Eldridge, the song’s inspiration. In 1943, the USS Eldridge sat in the Philadelphia Naval Yard and suddenly glowed with a blue-green light and then disappeared, momentarily showing up in Virginia, and then hours later flickering back to our reality in Philadelphia. The sailors aboard reported various ailments, and the entire affair became known as “The Philadelphia Experiment,” where the US government used its navy as guinea pigs. Although various sources now call the entire thing a hoax, the tale provides fantastic fodder for Garcia’s lyrics: “man make the weather / man make your mind / forward and back again / they’re stressing time / they’re bending time / they’re splitting time.” The trio charges through “Camp Hero” like an electric bolt of twisted energy form clandestine government experiments, and boom! The Offering has run its high octane course in a lean thirteen minutes and change, and you might want to relisten to the fever pitch of the five tracks again. And again. Go ahead. I did.
The world is full of dark creepy forces, and Shop Talk weave the myriad stories found therein into some pretty unique and satisfying punk rock. Long-time Guided By Voices producer Travis Harrison recorded The Offering at his Serious Business Studio in NYC; Harrison and Garcia mixed the EP. Shop Talk will be live at Le Poisson Rouge on June 3 in NYC, supporting Pissed Jeans (w/Carniverous Bells).
The Murlocs explore new countrified territory on their seventh LP, Calm Ya Farm, now out via ATO Records. While their previous album, Rapscallion, rocked out with garage-psych flair, this newest offering from the eclectic Melbourne-based quintet delivers a sound with much more bluesy twang and butt-shaking stomp. But this is no earnest and starry-eyed hoedown either. Frontman Ambrose Kenny-Smith (also of the prolific psych-rock project King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard) delivers satirical and at times surreal lyrics full of world-weariness, but never without his mischievous sense of humor. The band’s overall sound, too, could never come across as just straight ahead country rock. The personnel here (including the bassist Cook Craig, Callum Shortal on guitar, drummer Matt Blach, and Tim Karmouch on keys) bring a lot of experience and mastery in the garage, punk, doom, and psych realms. (Craig is in also King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard with Kenny-Smith; Shortal plays with Orb, and Blach drums for Beans.)
The overall effect of Calm Ya Farm makes you dance away the absurdity of a world on edge. Kenny Smith described the process and product of this most recent record: “With this record we tried to steer away from all the distortion and dirt and grit, or at least let the grit come off a bit more clean-sounding…Instead of a bunch of people bashing away, it’s more intricate and precise—but at the same there’s a warm, summery, youthful feeling to most of the songs.”
Calm Ya Farm starts off with “Initiative,” a song focused on wobbly desires toward stereotypical adulthood. “It’s about recognizing the need to start taking responsibility for your life instead of always living in the now and killing all your brain cells along the way,” Kenny-Smith explains. “Not in the sense of dropping everything and getting an office job, but just trying to take things more seriously and making sure you’ve lived a life that’s full.” “Initiative” also has an intriguing video directed by Guy Tyzack, where the viewer follows Kenny-Smith wandering through the hills of Australian suburbia.
Another standout track is the recently released single, “Undone and Unashamed,” featuring Kenny-Smith’s first-ever sax solo! In contrast to “Intiative,” where having the “rebel spirit” seems to be celebrated, “Undone and Unashamed” dips into the darker side of committing your life to the endless party. The lyrics say it all: “Strutting down the sidewalk, hopscotch footpath with your wrist in a cast/Whiskey cigarette breath toothless sipping from his hip flask.” The video for “Undone and Unashamed” (directed by Jack Rule) will turn you upside down, or at least try to.
My favorite songs on Calm Ya Farm, though, are “Queen Pinky” and “Catfish.” “Queen Pinky” motivates me to strut around pushing all the bullshit out of my way, like a queen does. Kenny-Smith’s lyrics are all a-glow with love for the queen in question here: “Count your blessings and be thankful for the queen / She’s just doing what she can to work her routine…All hail queen pinky.” According to the band, “Queen Pinky” is a romantic serenade to Kenny-Smith’s new wife, which makes it seem even more special.
“Catfish” musically captures the longing of online catfishing, with all the sonic seduction you would expect. The chorus stretches out, wiggling its fishy whiskers at you, a lush soundscape glittering, full of Craig bringing layers of mellotron, strings, and other equally alluring instruments. Kenny-Smith’s vocals, too, on this track, sink into the lower range of his tenor talents, and the effect is hypnotic.
The Murlocs will celebrate Calm Ya Farm by touring the UK and Europe in September, and I have no doubt these gents put on a fantastic show, so if you’re on that side of the pond, check out their tour dates and get there. (See our coverage from their Nov. 2022 stop in NYC) For the rest of us stateside, take a dip this summer into the sunshine sounds of Calm Ya Farm, and hopefully The Murlocs will come visit us again soon.
Calm Ya Farm is available now via ATO Records and is available on all major streamers.