Babes in Toyland / Blackbox / Lil Tits
Concord Music Hall; Chicago, IL

Photo: Amanda Athon

Babes in Toyland were ahead of the curve on a lot of things. Not only was their brand of furious, female-centric sludge-punk an important inspiration for the burgeoning riot grrrl movement in the 90s, they also hated Courtney Love long before it was mainstream. It’s fitting, then, that they should get to bask in the reunion-circuit glory that so many of their peers are enjoying. Their January show at The Concord followed on the heels of their appearance at Riot Fest this past fall, and marked their first Chicago stop since the departure of long-time bassist Maureen Herman. I didn’t get to catch their set at the festival this year, so it was awfully swell of Riot Fest to give me a shot at a re-do.

Openers Lil Tits were something of a revelation. The Chicago three-piece have been gaining notoriety, even drawing a nod from the ‘Fork back in 2014. Under the guidance of drummer and Chicago punk fixture Karissa Talanian, the group has refined its sound into a kind of doom punk; think hardcore songs played in metal tuning and sung by a choir of ghouls. Their 30-minute set was a flash of ominous shredding, shrieked gang vocals (courtesy of guitarist Hannah Johnson and bassist Madalyn Garcia), and on songs like “Wereworm” and “Bowser,” unexpected detours into thick stoner grooves.

Photo: Amanda Athon

Lil Tits was followed by another Chicago act, alt rock two-piece Blackbox, whom I had totally forgotten that I’d seen before at another Riot Fest event back in 2009. Frontman (and dude who’s apparently one Tony short of an EGOT) Damon Ranger seemed determined to be as off-putting as possible this time around. When he wasn’t name-dropping Dave Grohl or generously offering to jam his guitar into audience members’ pussies, he performed a selection of aggressively MOR rock songs from the band’s oeuvre. The only things that made Blackbox’s presence tolerable was the sight of a middle-aged woman in the audience who flew her middle finger at half-mast for most of the duration of their set, and my wife’s running commentary1.

Fortunately, the Babes were more than up to the task of washing Ranger’s aftertaste out of our collective mouths. To prove they weren’t dicking around, they came out the gate swinging with “He’s My Thing.” Frontwoman Kat Bjelland was electric. Wild-haired and wild-eyed, she strutted the stage in black leather pants, punctuating every solo with a bitchin’ high kick. Bjelland’s voice remains the secret sauce in the Babes’ lasting appeal, infusing volatility into songs that could otherwise have gotten lost in the sea of heavy punk that flooded the early 90s. Her throaty growls and unhinged shrieks can, at a moment’s notice, give way to unnervingly childlike coos or shaky warbles. Brash as she was, she stayed at a slight remove from the audience, rarely engaging in any between-song banter. Drummer and co-founder Lori Barbero acted as the band’s warm, chewy center, handling the pleasantries, and even getting a swing at the lead vocals on Nemisisters’ chant-like “Drivin’.”

Babes In Toyland’s setlist cast a wide net over their discography but favored ever-so-slightly 1992 breakout Fontanelle. “Bluebell,” “Bruise Violet,” and “Handsome and Gretel” were some of the highlights of my night and provided a good balance to crawling, moodier fair like “Ariel” or “Vomit Heart.” It was well past 11 when the Babes wrapped up their encore (“Oh Yeah!”), but if anyone there was worried about having to get up for work the next morning, they didn’t show it. For that 90 minutes or so, we all were 18 again.

1. Here are all the best things my wife said about Ranger, ranked in ascending order of hilarity: (1) “This guy is the reason that women need to stop having sex with dudes who play guitar.” (2) “He’s like a human jerk-off motion.” (3) “He’s the kind of guy who lives with his mom, but tells everyone that she lives with him.”

Photo: Amanda Athon
Photo: Amanda Athon
Photo: Amanda Athon

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