Play lady, play


August 10, 2001



Resonant of Shakespeare and the Renaissance Fair, the name is an unfortunate one. "Nobody uses the word `lady' anymore," says Arista Strungys, frontwoman of Chicago's Loraxx, one of several dozen bands performing next week as part of Ladyfest.

In most other regards, though, the four days of concerts, gallery showings, films, panel discussions and workshops are very much of the moment--right down to the spirited debate among organizers and participants over whether a separate festival celebrating the accomplishments of women is even desirable in what is supposed to be the post-feminist era of gender equality.

The roots of Ladyfest can be traced to Washington state, where a smaller festival with the same name was held last year in the college town of Olympia, home base for the indie "riot grrrl" scene. Several members of the Chicago organizing committee attended that event and came away inspired to do something here. Olympia didn't intend a repeat, so organizers there gave their blessings to use the name (thanks a lot).

In the months that followed, an ever-expanding group of artists, filmmakers and musicians, with a lot more energy than experience, started to pull together Ladyfest Midwest. Now it's here, drawing artists and attendees from across the country, starting on Thursday and running through Aug. 19 at a number of venues in Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

What exactly is the point of it all? Ask any three people in the thick of it and you'll get three different answers.

The manifesto posted on the group's Web site ( states that "the goals of Ladyfest are to increase the visibility of women from the Midwest working in the arts and activism; to provide an open forum for women to discuss/debate contemporary issues; to help foster and sustain the community of women in and around Chicago, and to fill the streets with four days of the most exciting and innovative female-driven events ever to hit Chicago."

All of which is fine, but it raises the question that the big-bucks Lilith Fair posed several years ago: Is an event like this truly celebrating diversity, or is it contributing to further marginalization by setting female artists apart? As California punks L7 always said, they longed for the day when they would simply be called a great rock band, instead of a great female rock band.

"I was sitting in a cafe with my friend until 6 in the morning talking about this the other day," says Tammy Cresswell, one of Ladyfest's movers and shakers. "It makes sense, and it's a good question. To me, through the years, women have grown to the level where we are equal with men. Women can go out there and be just as good of a lawyer as men can."

Same with artists in every medium. So why not just throw an "arts fest"?

"Ladyfest is bringing women together and trying to create this community because only women have certain emotions and certain feelings, and it's kind of a nice way to identify with something," Cresswell says.

Another organizer, Kristen Cox, has more of a chip on her shoulder. "I've lived in Chicago for four years, and men dominate this city and the music," she says. "Women get pushed to the cracks."

Actually, some of the most successful musicians to emerge from this city have been women or bands that featured female members: Liz Phair, Veruca Salt, Freakwater, Eleventh Dream Day, and Smashing Pumpkins, to name just a few. Most of the female musicians I've spoken with disagree with Cresswell: Those that don't think their sex has actually helped their careers say that it hasn't hurt, and they've never lost an opportunity because of their gender.

"I think there are a lot of women doing interesting and important things here, but they don't make a big deal out of it," says Kiki Yablon, a guitarist with the Dishes and the music editor of the Reader.

Like many bands, the Dishes are somewhat conflicted on the issue of gender. Though they have what could be considered a gender-specific name, they've had male members at various times, and there's nothing inherently "feminine" about their music, a melodic but hard-rocking sound built on '70s punk.

"We're doing Ladyfest because it seems like it will be fun to be around all these women who are making music, and it really isn't that common still," Yablon says. "There aren't nearly as many women playing music as there are men. I don't necessarily think there should be or shouldn't be. If people want to do it, they should just go out and do it."

Though two-thirds of the spirited noise-rock trio Loraxx visit the men's rest room while Strungys waits in line on the other side of the club, gender isn't otherwise an issue with Loraxx.

"I think it's important in a festival with a specific aim like Ladyfest to have a band there that represents an equal collaboration between three people in all aspects of being a band," Strungys says. "These aren't my songs and Elliott [Talarico] and Jeff [Lauras] just back me up. These are songs written together by three people who carry equal responsibility for the end result. In regard to how Loraxx functions as a band, both musically and in the business aspect, my gender is irrelevant. Isn't this the evolution everyone wants?"

Here, here! But once that point has been made, Ladyfest provides as good a reason to celebrate this city's music and arts scene as any other. And in addition to being an impressive feat of Do-It-Yourself promotion, its emphasis on activism bodes well for the future of a thriving underground that just gets stronger all the time.

"This is about community," Cox says. "About women organizing something at a very grassroots level, in a D.I.Y. nature that is not Lilith Fair or a major festival trying to accomplish things. It's about the work and the process that goes into it."

"Growing up in America, you're kind of looking for something in a sense to identify with," Cresswell adds. "Through music and through art in any genre, you find commonality."

The full roster of events is listed on the Ladyfest Web site, and a $70 pass that grants admittance to all venues (many of them all-ages) can be purchased via But here is a quick look at some of the highlights.

Things kick off at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the central venue, the Congress Theater at 2135 N. Milwaukee, with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls; Atlanta punks the Butchies (who've been backing Ray to great effect on her solo tours); Le Tigre, the new group fronted by Kathleen Hanna, driving force of the hugely influential riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, and singer-songwriter Tami Hart.

Starting at 9 on Friday, Aug. 17, the lineup at the Congress features Teresa Vasquez, Niki Mitchell, indie-rock heroine Barbara Manning, Loraxx, the Hissyfits and the Need.

Also on tap next Friday: Cynthia Plastercaster speaking at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, before an evening of music that includes the Tuffets, Pistol Whipped, Bees are Black, and Shannon Wright. Meanwhile, the Brownouts, Rebecca Pearcy, Jenny Toomey, and Tallulah perform at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, and Kaytee Bodle, Antje, Kelly Hogan and Danielle Howle play at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln.

Don't miss the panel discussion at noon on Friday at the Association House, 2150 W. North. Offering a glimpse behind the scenes at women in the music industry are Blue Ghost publicist Maria Catamero, Nan Warshaw of Blood Shot Records, Wendy Schneider of Coney Island Studios in Madison, Stacey Singer of Daemon Records, and DePaul University professor and rock critic Deena Weinstein, the most insightful thinker on gender in rock in the rock press or the academic world.

On Saturday night, Aug. 18 at the Congress, the performers are Sonido (ink); the Long Goodbye; the Dishes; Misty Martinez; the puta-pons, Bratmobile, another (excuse me) seminal riot grrrl band, and the surprising choice of headliners ESG.

A hugely influential combo that formed in the South Bronx in the late '70s and which now includes two daughters of the founding members, ESG straddled the line between early hip-hop and the avant-garde rock of Soho's "No Wave." Its funky grooves have been sampled by Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and others, and it shared stages back in the day with the Clash, Public Image and Grandmaster Flash. After Roxy Music, this might be the coolest reunion of the summer.

Also performing next Saturday: Heather's Damage, Fast Product, Sally Timms, and Janet Bean of Freakwater, and Eleventh Dream Day at the Empty Bottle, and Silverado, the Rope, Sailor Harlette, Slumber Party, KIM, Lupine and Blechtum from Blechdom at the Fireside Bowl, 2648 W. Fullerton.

Ladyfest wraps up on Sunday, Aug. 19 with a closing picnic in Humboldt Park. Again, numerous other events are scheduled throughout the weekend; check the Web site. Finally, know that men are welcome at all of these events--it isn't just a lady thing.