After explaining that the next song would be about how there are thousands of feminists, all around the world, and driving home the obvious point -- there is not one sole leader of the feminist movement -- Kathleen Hanna giggled, hearing yet another shout-out from the audience. She jokingly replied, “OK, OK, but I am the number one feminist.”
It was this typical audience-artist interplay that brought the excitement of Hanna’s return to the stage, via new/old project the Julie Ruin at Slim’s last night.
Wearing a darling baby smock and her standard high brunette bun, Hanna bounced out on stage like she’d never left, chugging from a jug of water and robo-dancing during rare vocal lulls. In reality, the Bikini Kill and Le Tigre frontperson has been out of the bar-light for nearly a decade, struggling with neurological Lyme disease. Early in the Julie Ruin’s set, Hanna noted, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been on this stage, and there was a time when I thought I’d never return.”
The poppy set, performed by the five-piece joined by percussionist Fredo Ortiz, switched off, one for one, between lo-fi songs off 1997 self-titled solo record Julie Ruin (thickened up with additional instrumentaion), and new bolder, more fully realized the Julie Ruin collaboration, Run Fast (Dischord). The sold-out crowd, which was packed tightly into Slim’s, cheered for each song, hollering loving refrains toward Hanna at every possible chance. It felt like long-attached Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fans came out of the woodwork, cute haircuts in tact, but also a newer, younger batch of the Julie Ruin fans were sprinkled throughout.(Don’t worry, I picked up a tote bag at the merch table.)
The avid fans cheered hard for older songs off the ’97 solo record like “Radical or Pro-Parental” and doubly for newer danceable riot grrrl rock songs such as first Run Fast single “Oh C’mon” and “Girls Like Us.” There was a "Le Tigre cover" (Hanna's words) of "Eau d'Bedroom Dancing" off Le Tigre's self-titled 1999 debut. At one point, Hanna began singing the emotional cover of “Stay Monkey” from the first Julie Ruin album -- someone in the audience requested it -- but then admitted she’d forgotten the words, perhaps a symptom of the Lyme disease? (During our interview a few weeks back, she said she would often use the wrong words for things during the recording process for this new record, and the band would go with it in a stream-of-consciousness burst.)
Together, the relatively newly assembled band members of the Julie Ruin worked liked family, smiling, dancing, winking -- which makes sense, given that Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli, and Sara Landeau are all musician-pals from Hanna’s past. Wilcox, of course, also being from Bikini Kill, among other bands.
Mellman took the lead on the one track in which he wrote the lyrics, “South Coast Plaza,” explaining that the song was about friends in SF (where he lived from 1987-1997) who made a pact to kill one another if one got sick, and it actually happened. He said he placed the friendship in Orange County though (hence, South Coast Plaza, a weirdly fancy mall at which I have spent many wasted teenage afternoons).
But Hanna was up front for most songs, as well she should be. The whole night felt like a bittersweet reunion, and perhaps it was, though Hanna stressed that we should look toward the future. Because for girls like us, there’s always a place in our hearts for a female-empowerment pop anthem.