The Raincoats and Grass Widow at the Double Door, Chicago, 9/19/11: Review and Setlists

Categories: Show Reviews

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The Raincoats. Photo by Mike Appelstein
The Raincoats | Grass Widow
The Double Door
September 19, 2011

After three decades of sporadic activity, it's about time the Raincoats played the Midwest. This legendary late '70s/early' 80s London band toured the East and West coasts during its initial tenure. After reforming in 1994 on Kurt Cobain's behest, the band played short tours but never made it to the center of the country. However, it has played Detroit, Toronto and Chicago this week in celebration of new re-releases of The Raincoats and Odyshape, the group's first two Rough Trade albums. Given the addition of Bay Area trio Grass Widow to this tour, it was a no-brainer to take a five and a half hour Megabus ride to Chicago. This was not to be missed.

First, a few words about Grass Widow. Over the course of two albums, an EP and a 7" single, this band has moved quickly to the upper echelons. The trio is capable of shout-along melodic killers, and it played a few of them on Monday. On "Celebrate The Mundane," "Tattoo" and "Lulu's Lips," all three of them sang separate melody lines, harmonies bobbing in and out as required. You could make comparisons to Kleenex and the Raincoats themselves -- guitarist Raven Mahon enthusiastically acknowledged her own fandom in between songs. However, the band just as often reminded me of Mission of Burma, the Minutemen and early Wire -- its set included a cover of Pink Flag's "Mannequin" to seal the deal, as well as "Time Keeps Time" by 1980s Portland, OR cult heroes Neo Boys. Frequently they would drone on one chord, with Mahon chopping out staccato rhythms, bassist Hannah Lew playing fluid, almost lead guitar-like bass lines, and drummer Lillian Maring keeping the whole thing from collapsing, providing both tension and release. Despite some minor problems -- specifically, not enough guitar in the mix -- Grass Widow fulfilled all expectations and then some. There was also cool merch, including homemade cassettes.

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Grass Widow. Photo by Mike Appelstein
From its 1979 debut through its most recent album, 1996's Looking In The Shadows, the Raincoats have always been outspoken. It has frequently tackled feminist issues both explictly ("Off Duty Trip," "Fairytale In The Supermarket") and implicitly (most of Odyshape). With its unconventional-at-the-time instrumentation (guitar/bass/drums/violin) and non-pro approach, they helped demystify the very process of music making and helped point a way forward from punk rock's initial big bang. The Sex Pistols and Clash were merely slightly sloppier pub-rock bands, but The Raincoats' "Fairytale In The Supermarket" -- with its off-key harmonies, dublike dropouts and angry violin -- was something radically different and confrontational. For these reasons, the Raincoats has influenced at least two generations of bands, including the 1990s riot grrrls and modern acts such as Vivian Girls and Brilliant Colors.

Seeing the Raincoats in 2011 is a different sort of revelation. Bassist/vocalist Gina Birch is now in her 50s, and guitarist/vocalist Ana da Silva is in her 60s. Now, rock music is no longer a young person's game. The form is seven decades old. Bob Dylan turned 70 this year, Paul McCartney becomes a septuagenarian next year, and our own Chuck Berry still packs them into Blueberry Hill well into his 80s. But rock music is still a youth-obsessed culture; how else to explain a pushing-70 Mick Jagger still singing paens to underage girls, or John Lydon occasionally acting the part of an antichrist/anarchist when he's now a successful property developer in Southern California?

But The Raincoats have always sang about and challenged the superficiality of physical beauty. As my two showgoing companions noted, it meant one thing for Birch and da Silva to sing "No One's Little Girl" or "Odyshape" ("She looks embarrassed, embarrassed...she looks in mirrors, in magazines...Blot on the landscape/unrefined, quite out of place") as young women, but quite another to perform them to an audience comprised largely of young women who could be their daughters. Perhaps this is one reason why the Raincoats' reunion has worked where so many other band reunions have been, at best, halfhearted exercises in nostalgia. If anything, these songs gain added poignance and perspective as the years go by.

Or you can ignore the theorizing completely and marvel at how well they still play these songs, with virtually all the energy and spark from the earliest recordings. Its set drew largely from the first two albums, with five songs from The Raincoats, four from Odyshape, and "Fairytale In The Supermarket" from its first single. Only one song, "Ooh Ooh La La La," came from Moving, the band's underrated 1984 album. On these songs, The Raincoats proved itself a noisemaker of the first order, with da Silva scratching out sound with a metal capo while Anne Wood (who replaced original violinist Vicky Aspinall in 1994) coaxed both poignant and violent tones from her electric violin, and Vice Cooler took on the difficult task of replicating at least three earlier drummers' styles. Three songs came from the almost-forgotten Looking in The Shadows era, including Birch's manic "Don't Be Mean." One new song found Birch asking, "When you ask me if I'm a feminist, I say, 'Why the hell would I not be?'" It all added up to an inspiring night.

Notes and setlists on the next page.

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