Bikini Kill headlined Riot Fest with their first Chicago show in 20+ years (pics, review)
"I just wanted to say that we're a feminist band and we're headlining a festival," Kathleen Hanna said during Bikini Kill's headlining set at the final day of Riot Fest 2019. Drummer/sometimes-lead-singer Tobi Vail addressed the same topic later on too, and talked about how much harder it is not just for outwardly feminist bands but for women in general to get that slot, which is mostly dominated by men. It's unfortunate how true that is, but it should go without saying that Bikini Kill deserved this slot just as much as Jawbreaker, The Misfits, and The Replacements did when they reunited to headline Riot Fest in recent years. Like all three of those bands, Bikini Kill were a punk band who were never hugely popular in their time, but went to influence countless bands after breaking up, and their stature grew exponentially over time. Finally returning and headlining one of the country's biggest punk-centric festivals felt like a triumphant celebration of how important and beloved they've grown to be over the years. One main difference between this set and the aforementioned bands' headlining performances is that those bands were also playing their first shows back when headlining Riot Fest (which does make a difference, as evidenced by Jawbreaker playing to a much smaller crowd on a side stage during blink-182's headlining set this year). Bikini Kill had already played some reunion shows earlier this year, so maybe less people felt the need to fly in specifically to see them. But it was still their first Chicago show since the '90s -- Tobi mentioned on stage that their last time playing Chicago was at Fireside Bowl in 1995 -- and they still had the place absolutely packed. It was such a long time coming for Bikini Kill to return and play a huge fest like this, and most importantly of all, they sounded absolutely incredible.
I was too young to have seen Bikini Kill back in the day, but I've watched plenty of what YouTube has to offer, and they sounded just like they did back then. Maybe even a little better. I'd love to get the chance to see them in the kinds of small dingy clubs they used to play, but it was a real treat to hear how massive they could sound on a big stage playing for thousands of people. Kathleen still dances and runs around the stage like she did in the '90s, and as a singer, she's still all over the place in the best way, bouncing between melodic singing, screaming, her mocking low voice, and her higher-pitched taunts without stopping to take a breath. Though Kathleen is the star of the band, Tobi was just about as powerful when she stepped out from behind the drum kit to front the band, and new guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle (Billy Karren's replacement) fit in perfectly with the rest of the band. Kathi Wilcox, who played every instrument at least one point in the night, held it down perfectly as well. The hour-plus set was filled with favorites from all across the band's discography, and I think I speak for the whole crowd when I say that Bikini Kill kept us on our toes the entire time. And as great as the songs were, Kathleen's stage banter was just as powerful. She introduced "Feels Blind" with a story of how the lyrics were from a poem she had written as a teenager after a disturbing experience with a man in his 40s, and she talked about how she never would have imagined one day she'd be singing the words from that poem for a crowd of thousands. She then went on to encourage the crowd to never throw out their writing or art of any kind, and the cheers only got louder as she went on.
Later in the set, before playing "Reject All American," Kathleen talked about being exhausted with the troubled times we're living in, and then said how great it felt to be surrounded by such a huge mass of people who wanna change the world as much as the members of Bikini Kill have always wanted to. The assumption of course was that if you chose to watch this band, then you are definitely on the same page, and the crowd roared back in solidarity to confirm. At another moment in the set, people started a "girls to the front!" chant, and Kathleen said she'd love to join in with them but was worried the crowd was so big that it'd be a safety hazard. And all throughout the set, she talked about how much inequality still exists to fight against, and both her and Tobi thanked everyone who continues to join in on the fight.
Every single song Bikini Kill played sounded fantastic, but not surprisingly, the biggest crowdpleaser was set-closer "Rebel Girl." That song has become as much of a punk classic as anything by the pioneering '70s/'80s punk bands (like, say, Patti Smith, who tore it up on the same stage right before Bikini Kill), and it sounds as fresh in 2019 as ever. From the first note Kathleen sang, the whole crowd erupted into the biggest singalong of the night, and it only got louder in the chorus. After "Rebel Girl," fans were screaming for more, though no encore came (despite there being about 20 minutes remaining until curfew), but "Rebel Girl" was the perfect way for Bikini Kill to end the show. Being in the middle of a gigantic festival crowd that were all yelling along to the song, it felt like witnessing the culmination of Bikini Kill's transformation from defunct cult favorites to active stars.
photos by James Richards IV