All photos and review by Greg Katz
“Can I get some more guitar in the monitors? It’s still really quiet,” said Kimya Dawson. Then: “Oh, it isn’t plugged in.”
When I took a queer musicology class at UCLA, one of the more fascinating genres I read about was the folk music spawned from the lesbian feminist movement. What you need to know: Far from the baroque femme folk of Joni Mitchell, “lesbian folk” is about simplicity. Musical competence is assigned a low value; a sense of communal welcoming and total sincerity are the goals. The lyrics are literal, usually sung in simple melodies, and often featuring “gang vocals” on the choruses. There are no reverbs, delays, or other spatial effects, and rarely is there a band beyond acoustic guitar and sometimes flute. If you want a key example of the genre, peep Alix Dobkin’s silly lesbian standard, “View from a Gay Head.” (Sorry, I have no mp3 handy.) If there are modern-day heirs to the style, they’re probably Indigo Girls, or Ani diFranco, but they’re both a pretty far cry from their predecessors.
The record that surprised me most pleasantly last year was Kimya Dawson’s earnest, charming and devastating Remember that I Love You. While the album operates in the lesbian folk tradition, it swaps feminist pretense for Dawson’s harrowing stories of the deaths of friends and family. Both stripped-down and plainspoken, the album has awesome emotional resonance. Singing about her mother’s life-threatening illness, Dawson says, voice cracking, “I try to be brave / ’cause when I’m brave other people feel brave / but I feel like my heart is caving in.” Elsewhere, backed by the tuneless vocals of a bunch of friends, she suggests, “If you want to kill yourself / remember that I love you! / Call me up before you’re dead / we can make some plans instead / send me an IM, I’ll be your friend.” Awwwww
Dawson came to town on short notice. She booked the show recently upon realizing she’d be here for the premiere of the should-be quirky-and-heartwarming film Juno, the tale of teen pregnancy to which Dawson lends her songs and those of her former band, the Moldy Peaches. I expected all of her charm when she played at the Smell yesterday, and she didn’t disappoint. Hunched alone over her half-sized acoustic guitar, rocking black leggings and what she called a “purple fishnet muumuu,” the frizzy-haired, tattooed Dawson strummed clumsily at her songs, mostly from Remember and 2004’s politically-oriented Hidden Vagenda. A welcoming audience 100-strong sang dutifully along, shouting the gang vocals with zeal. For Dawson’s part, though her songs are unmistakably very sad, even damaged, when she flubbed notes she would burst out laughing – indeed, there’s something to be said for the resiliency of the human spirit.
She also did a short set of children’s songs that will appear on an album called Alphabet early next year. Amongst the Alphabet songs she performed was one she wrote for her young daughter, Panda, the kind of 30-second, off-the-cuff melody that all parents have for their children, repeating their names and rhymeless little slogans. Something like this should have made the crowd uncomfortable; the song was written for an audience of one, and here it was, being played in public. The fact that it wasn’t uncomfortable, or even cloying, was a testament to the songwriter’s daring sincerity and the crowd’s open warmth.
As she wound down her set, she said, “My friend is going to join me for the last couple songs.” (I thought to myself: “Adam Green? Really?“) After a few moments in which no one materialized, a male voice called out, “Am I your friend?” and Green climbed on-stage, wresting the acoustic guitar from Dawson. The four-years-defunct Moldy Peaches, made up principally of Green and Dawson, were now on stage, and much of the audience was floored – a few eyes were even seen to wet – and it was only a moment before the name of every Moldy Peaches song was hollered out at the same time. It seemed that, as much as the crowd adored Dawson’s solo work, her old band’s six-year-old self-titled album was the real life-changer for many Smell-goers.
The Peaches went through nine or ten classics from their single album of heartfelt, foul-mouthed co-ed folk, a style so unique that the music press branded it “anti-folk” at the height of their popularity. Included in the set were “Rainbows,” “Lucky Number Nine,” “Downloading Porn with Davo,” “Nothing Came Out,” (featuring the trademark Dawson line, “You’re probably holding hands / with some skinny pretty girl who likes to / talk about bands”) and the recently ubiquitous “Anyone Else but You.” The crowd bellowed every line along with Green’s Cohenesque baritone and Dawson’s cracking alto, and while the male Peach seemed to have a note-perfect memory of the old songs, his female counterpart had forgotten a lot, leading to quite a few laughing song collapses. Between tunes they traded jokes and anecdotes; apparently, for example, Green is disgusted by Dawson’s habit of public breast-feeding. The tall, skinny, and greasy Green looked a little out of place as the duo’s leader, sporting a vintage green suit and complementary vest, wearing a guitar that was two or three sizes too small.
(It’s worth noting somewhere that there was no mention of a permanent reunion or tour, and I couldn’t help but think the Peaches were asked to reunite just to play a couple shows around the release of Juno. Still, Dawson has changed her website to say that she’s a member of the Moldy Peaches, rather than a former member.)
Eventually, the inevitable: It was time for the last song, and the crowd had been patiently waiting for the Peaches’ anthem, “Who’s Got the Crack.” Dawson declared that they’d be playing “Who’s Got the Blues,” which caused some head-scratching amongst the faithful, but as Green strummed the opening notes and the two sang, “There’s no such thing / as a harmless joke,” no one was the wiser. But then, as they went into the chorus, the audience gleefully chanted, “Who’s got the crack,” while Dawson and Green sang “Who’s got the blues,” much to the confusion of the Smell. While few seemed to get the joke besides the two reunited bandmates, the crowd tried its best to laugh along. The Peaches kept singing “blues” in place of “crack” for the rest of the song.
“I don’t think they like us any more!” laughed Dawson as the Moldy Peaches faced the confused but adoring audience’s ovation. Had she seen the broadly grinning, tear-tracked faces of those exiting into the Smell’s back alley, she would have known exactly how wrong she was.