Thursday, February 28, 2019

Sudden Sympathy: Stars at Night and Le Butcherettes

I haven’t claimed to be a punk in a long time, though that fire was the thing that first lit the rock and roll path at my feet. Seeing LA’s Stars at Night and Le Butcherettes at KC's RecordBar shook me with a visceral reminder why and how that fire first lit. Though I missed most of their set, Stars at Night immediately caught me up in all the possibilities of guitars, bass, drum and a singer determined to cry for life. These four women rocked hard and fast and big, setting what felt like all the hearts and minds in the house throbbing. You can get a pretty good sense of it from the new record’s opening cut, "Searching"-

Then came Le Butcherettes, like Stars at Night a fundamentally Mexican-American punk band, but with a guitar-strapped and red-keyboard-dancing indigenous warrior as its frontwoman. Teri Gender Bender (Teresa Suarez Cosio) is, despite the name, a righteously feminine presence on stage. Her femininity manages to unlock the power of a rock star while, at the same time, embodying the fan who’s making the most of her time on stage. Cosio’s duality took me back to my punk self. For kids like me, who lived and breathed music but didn't understand the world of the Hollywood-Rock-Star culture, the punks were a human-size revolution, as their brothers and sisters in hip hop would parallel and inform. I think of this video for "This is Radio Clash"— 

With all that was happening with funk, hip hop and soul in the 80s, I soon felt outside the punk world, and I've not kept a close watch there for ages. That said, over three decades down the line, the gap between fan and star that created 70s punk is wider than ever. It's exacerbated by the irony that there is a new immediacy to the media, but YouTube sensations and TV talent show contestants arrive without a sense of a movement or fan base behind them.  

Le Butcherettes have paid their dues, and, over the course of its four albums, Le Butcherettes has taken several forms. What hit Kansas City mid-February was a band's band--drummer Alejandra Robles Luna holding down the beat and kicking up a furor to make Keith Moon smile, while bassist Marfred Rodriguez-Lopez and guitarist/second keyboardist Rico Rodriguez-Lopez played near-stoic foils to Cosio's expressive, explosive, dynamic and achingly vulnerable antics. Watching this multi-dimensional, intimate and hard-fought show reminded me that nearly the whole world of what is most raw and real in this rock and roll history is once again underground. The radio has never felt more like the tip of an iceberg. And the revolution is being fought on levels I never dreamed of before, night after night after night.

I didn’t know Jerry Harrison produced their new album until well after I fell for it, but it makes sense. His first band, the Modern Lovers, were important to me for all the reasons suggested above, but that other band of his, The Talking Heads….They redefined what was possible. A slinky, poppin’ rhythm section holding together knife-play lyricism and Harrison filling the whole thing with the appropriate, impossible colors.

It’s enough to say this record has those colors, but what matters is the way the sound serves Cosio’s vision. This is a record that pushes and pulls at the contradictions and complexities of relationships like a saw taken to the bone. Cosio is playful and deadly serious at the same time. It’s vivid in “spider/WAVES” when she telegraphs the opening chant, “Injuries are slashed deep open/Messiahs hold them still.” It’s terrifying….and inviting.

There’s so much to this hard-focused tightrope between grief and liberation. The folky “in/THE END” complements an irresistible, tender melody with a gut-tugging lyric. “give/UP” begins with a battle cry and a charging verse before reaching a bridge built by compassion. That’s in the lyric, but it’s also in the sound, a meandering stream of colored keyboard. Caught up by those sparkling waters, Cosio sings, “Sudden sympathy invades the very fiber of my vicious being.” Such precious connections have everything to do with why I came to punk in the first place. What's more, they lie at the heart of rock and soul itself.