Make way for the LadyFest


August 19, 2001



On purely musical terms, rock needs to work toward the day when a female musician is considered a great artist instead of a great female artist.

For that reason, festivals such as Lilith Fair have almost been counter to the cause. But Ladyfest Midwest was different in several key ways.

For one, the four-day celebration of women and independent music was as much about community-building and the do-it-yourself ethic as it was about women in rock.

For another, at a time when the mainstream is dominated by heavily hyped, minimally talented Lolitaesque divas such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, young women are sorely in need of some real alternative role models.

And so they came, starting on Thursday: some 2,000 musicians and fans from throughout Chicago and across the country. They injected the already thriving Wicker Park/Logan Square underground with even more energy than usual, filling the streets with oddly dyed hair, tattoos, multiple piercings, and Powderpuff Girls backpacks, and underscoring a valuable message: Male or female, gay or straight, anybody can make good rock 'n' roll--so long as they have something to get off their chests.

This is not to say that every act that performed at the central venue of the Congress Theater on Thursday and Friday was stellar--just that they had the right attitude.

Fronted by Kathleen Hannah, a founder of the riot grrrl movement, Thursday's electro-punk headliners Le Tigre were embarrassingly bad, falling apart for 10 minutes after breaking a string during the second song, and offering simplistic political statements and an intriguing slide show as weak compensation for a lack of musical ideas and Hannah's annoyingly chirpy vocals.

Moonlighting from the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray was far more compelling, rocking out with Atlanta's Butchies, taking shots at commercial radio and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, and covering Tom Petty and the Buzzcocks with a fiery punk spirit. (The Butchies preceded Ray with a strong solo set of their own material as well.)

On Friday, Samra Kendrick kicked things off with a belly-dancing demonstration, followed by two sets of New Agey music and poetry from Nicole Mitchell and Teresa Vasquez that were only slightly more tedious than San Francisco singer-songwriter Barbara Manning's droning folk-rock.

The highlights this evening: New Englander Mary Timony and Chicago's Loraxx.

Striking out on her own after years of fronting Helium, Timony delivered a haunting, ethereal, and positively witchy set of moody piano ballads before being joined for a psychedelic blowout by former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha on electric sitar.

For sheer volume and passion, though, nothing topped Loraxx. As Elliott Talarico slammed away at the drums and new bassist Jeff Lauras proved a valuable addition, Arista Strungys unleashed wave after wave of scorching guitar and growling vocal fury.

Estrogen and gender had nothing to do with it. On this night as always, Strungys was a great rock 'n' roller, period--no qualifying adjectives asked for or needed.


Women also making noise behind the scenes


August 19, 2001


As important as the women onstage at Ladyfest asserting their right to rock are the many outside the spotlight who help turn the engines of the independent music scene.

That was the message of "Behind the Scenes: Women in the Music Industry," one of two dozen workshops that filled the festival's days before the music that dominated the evenings. (Other intriguing discussions: "Busting Out Loud and Proud: Queer Youth Speak from the Front Lines," "Rethinking the Activism of Generations X, Y and Z" and "Kinky Crafts: Cheap and Fun Ways to Enhance Your Sex Life".)

Led by moderator and DePaul University sociology Professor Deena Weinstein, author of the definitive book on heavy metal, the panelists gathered at Wicker Park's Association House to ponder why certain roles in the music world are regularly assigned to females (publicists, groupies) while it is still relatively rare to find a woman in others (recording engineers, record label heads, road managers).

Stacey Singer, of Atlanta's Daemon Records, noted that gender stereotyping begins at the toy store, when girls are steered toward the E-Z Bake ovens and boys are pointed at the chemistry sets.

Wendy Schneider, owner of Madison, Wis.-based Coney Island Studios and one of the rare female producers, somehow escaped that brainwashing. After an initial grace period, she said she is generally treated like "one of the boys" by the male bands she records. "The guys don't fart for the first four hours because there's a girl there, but then it starts," she said.

The women seemed to agree that they've faced no more discrimination in the music world than they would in the culture at large. Said Nan Warshaw, co-founder of Chicago-based Bloodshot Records: "Strong women do intimidate some men, but who cares?"

According to Warshaw, the biggest enemy of good music is "greedy people with dollar signs in their eyes--whether they're men or women."