Faster Than Sound: Patti Smith and Bikini Kill in One Weekend
Lighting strikes twice in Austin, and Pleasure Venom opens
Reviewed by Rachel Rascoe, Fri., May 13, 2022
Patti Smith wasn't sure we were coming. Onstage, the Chicago-born, New Jersey-raised poet said she'd been told there might not be a lot of people, having not visited Austin since 2013. In one of many openhearted Saturday moments, Smith admitted, "I thought, 'Well, these are difficult times, and we're still going through a lot of different things.' But you all came, you're all here!"
An even greater gap, Bikini Kill hadn't touched down in the state capital since the Nineties, prior to a multi-decade touring break. The reunion, starting in 2019, hadn't stopped in Austin until last weekend. Kathleen Hanna knew her project had sold out two nights – the first moved to Far Out Lounge for expanded capacity – but still looked delighted when stage lights illuminated a stuffed Mohawk balcony Sunday night. She remembered "going on the road in the Nineties and taking endless shit, and then coming back 30 years later."
"You all are here, like you've been waiting this whole time – being so generous and kind, not yelling, 'Show us your tits,' or telling me to shut up when I talk. It's amazing. Sometimes I feel like I'm in some weirdass fucking time machine."
Two harbingers of musical change landed locally in one week, offering reflections on feminism through the decades, and I wanted to go see 'em both for the first time. Smith remembered the options laid out for high school girls in the early Sixties: secretary, hairdresser, or wife. She'd noticed a few more paths for women these days. "Hey, I got one."
Patti Smith's Crowd Is Her Concert
Long an expert at shining light on interior life, Patti Smith opened audiences to a curio cabinet of her interests and inspirations at ACL Live. Namely, Adele's CBS concert special and a line from Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable, recited following the rousing "Free Money." ("I can't go on. I'll go on.") To get over what she called near hyperventilation in one of many mic-stand-knocking no-holds songs, she also invoked the power of Russian Olympic skaters. Try Alexandra Trusova, who once dressed like Wonder Woman with long red braids. An underdog, a fighter, a totem – Smith loves them all.
Like her channeled seasoned athlete, she never sounded out of breath for a second. After Bob Dylan's "The Wicked Messenger," she unspooled a three-song run from Horses. The additional deep, smoky grit of the 75-year-old's voice, powerful as ever, balanced out the slightly cleaned-up sound of her band, compared to recordings debuted in 1974. Alongside music, Smith has never stopped sharing her interests, prominently through poetry and writing, as well as modern echoes via Substack and Instagram.
The stage felt like just another platform, in a delightfully conversational and cheerful set from the punk progenitor. Early in the hour-and-a-half set, she mused: "You must know that you are our concert. When you sing it's, for me, the most beautiful part of any concert." Without an opener or record since 2012 album Banga, Smith's shirt-free merch table offered only her latest 2019 novel, Year of the Monkey.
With Smith's son Jackson on guitar, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and bassist/keyboardist Tony Shanahan, guitarist Lenny Kaye led a medley of the Rolling Stones' "I'm Free" into "Walk on the Wild Side." (Kaye also played the Continental Club and Waterloo Records in the following days, while Smith popped up at Austin's Soho House.) The lead vocalist happily reemerged during the "doo do doo do do."
Alongside odes to grandfathers and her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, her "good friend" Johnny Depp provided another reference. She played "Nine" – written some nine years ago for the actor's June 9 birthday – and ended the song with a solemn statement of his name. Mention of the star, currently embroiled in a very public defamation trial, inspired masculine cheers of "Amber Heard sucks" and "Free Johnny" from the crowd.
For the evening's final run, Smith invoked another totem in the winner of that day's Kentucky Derby, a feisty little red horse named Rich Strike. Deploying her masterful storytelling live, she worked the racehorse's improbable odds into the final sweep of "Gloria" as "Jesus died for somebody's sins … 80 to 1!" After draping herself in a Ukrainian flag for a house-lights-on finale of "People Have the Power," she pulled the mic stand back up, still with more to share.
"You made me so happy. I feel like I can win the fucking Kentucky Derby."
Bikini Kill's Fun and Fury
Back in 2018, Hanna shouted out local Pleasure Venom's "These Days" on Twitter with an emphatic "Austin Punks!!!" By the merch table after a scorching performance, PV leader Audrey Campbell called playing with Bikini Kill a full-circle moment. Opening up the delightfully young, women-majority mosh pit of next-gen fans, Campbell commanded with retro punk melodrama, decked out in fingerless gloves and once brandishing a paper fan. The prettier vocal parts of latest single "Severed Ties" only emphasized the quartet's scream-packed heavy breakdown.
With Hanna dancing on to the Delmonas' 1985 "Peter Gunn Locomotion," Bikini Kill debuted on Red River with a whiplash run of "New Radio," "This Is Not a Test," and "Don't Need You." Dashing through countless one-minute-ish hitters, the energy-bomb band brought palpable positivity, those deceptively sweet vocals, with a dash of punk history. In the decades since originating riot grrrl, the movement has moved mainstream enough to inspire a Netflix teen comedy, as well as some critiques of exclusivity.
Between tracks, Hanna offered: "Even though I hate the internet for obvious reasons, I love the internet because so many young people are learning about feminism, especially intersectional feminism. It isn't just about white women climbing up the corporate ladder, boss girls, and all that shit."
The vocalist instantly applied her forthrightness to the current age, thanking the front row for wearing masks. I'd never before seen a group gathered outside a venue taking rapid COVID-19 tests, requiring the door person to remind an impatient fan, "It hasn't been 15 minutes yet." Hanna later told off a crowd member for throwing water onstage, with a middle finger statement of, "It's a fucking pandemic."
Continuing longtime practice of switching instruments, "I Hate Danger" placed Hanna on bass and bassist Kathi Wilcox on drums. At the mic, drummer Tobi Vail provided a nice primer in Texas DIY, shouting out Eighties locals Meat Joy and Houston's Mydolls, as well as Austin's Nineties New Wavers the Prima Donnas (specifically bassist Chris Lyons) and 2000s all-girl group Finally Punk. Vail also tipped a hat to the Mohawk's all-ages status, which allowed for many sweet parent-and-kid pairings at the show. New guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle, with "The Future Is Trans" taped on her amp, also sat in on drums.
After criticizing Greg Abbott the night prior, Hanna touched on Republicans playing the victim ahead of the bodily autonomy-focused "Lil Red," where she coolly emphasized the line, "I am sorry we are so nice to you." Prior, she struck a balance of fun and fury ahead of "Reject All American," declaring: "Tonight we're going to dance, because we deserve a break from all the bullshit every 10 seconds."