It’s been a rough year for the legendary women of British punk. In the span of just six months, we lost both Ari Up, the frontwoman of reggae-punk rebels The Slits, and Poly Styrene, whose otherworldly wail defined the sound of anti-capitalist crusaders X-Ray Spex. Though remembered best for their stereotype-shattering roles in the late ’70s, both continued to express their uncompromising perspectives through music all their lives; Styrene passed away the day before the U.S. release of her solo album Generation Indigo. Their deaths (Up was 48 and Styrene 53) didn’t feel like the end of an era so much as a silencing of voices that still had a lot left to say.
There’s a third name that generally rounds out the holy trinity of great first-wave female-fronted punk bands: The Raincoats. Of course, the narratives of music history are necessarily selective and occasionally downright goofy, so this grouping always leaves out a bunch of other entirely worthy female-led bands (Dolly Mixture, the Mo-dettes, Delta 5, Girlschool, and Essential Logic, to name just a few) and neglects the fact that The Raincoats didn’t sound much like their punk contemporaries (their jaunty, chaotic compositions made them earlypractitioners of post-punk more than anything else). But the gods of punk canonicity have always smiled favorably on The Raincoats. Joe Strummer loved them, John Lydon called them his favorite band of the era, and in the early ’90s, independent music’s most influential curator ever, Kurt Cobain, introduced them to a whole new generation of fans when he cited the band’s 1979 self-titled record as one of his all-time favorites. Cobain’s adulation prompted one of those deliciously bizarre major-label flukes that could have only happened in the early ’90s: Geffen reissued The Raincoats’ entire back catalog. The newly reformed band was preparing to support Nirvana on its next tour right before Cobain’s death.
Though The Raincoats had reformed a number of times and released new material as recently as 1996 (Looking in the Shadows), the prevailing sentiment in the crowd before Saturday night’s show at Comet was that none of us ever thought we’d see The Raincoats live—-let alone in D.C., let alone in the back room of a ping-pong-and-pizza joint where a child’s birthday party had wrapped up not half an hour before, let alone in a space so wonderfully and unbelievably small. On the occasion of their 1981 album Odyshape’s rerelease, the band booked just six September shows in North America, which made the fact that they’d landed at Comet seem that much more serendipitous. There’s been a certain inevitability to most of the reunion shows that have rolled through town recently, but everything about this one felt a little bit surreal.
And it was an entire bill fit for a special occasion. The crowd was treated to a rare live performance from Ian Svenonius’s meta-band Felt Letters, who found time between their slinky grooves to perform skits in which they casually communed with the spirits of Buddy Holly and John Bonham. Svenonius asked the spirits to channel any great songs they happened to have through Felt Letters, and I believe it was Bonham who offered up a song he’d written called “600,000 Bands.” Truly an anthem for these times: “Everybody wants you to listen to [their band]/But you can’t right now because you’re listening to this.”
Up next was the San Francisco three-piece Grass Widow, who play surf-rock-inspired post-punk songs that sound like they’ve become lost in a hall of mirrors. Full of tumbling drums, spring-wound riffs, and off-kilter harmonies, their set was comprised of new material, cuts from their first two EPs, and a terrifically shimmery Neo Boys cover. The whole thing seemed surreal to them too: They said some variation of “We can’t believe we’re here opening for the Raincoats” between more or less every one of their songs.
Then out came The Raincoats, opening with a lively, pitch-perfect rendition of “No Side to Fall In.” Save for the seat behind the band’s drum kit, which has always been a revolving door, it was the
1978 1994 lineup: co-vocalists Ana da Silva and Gina Birch, along with multi-instrumentalist Vicky Aspinall Anne Wood, whose offbeat violin playing made the band stand out among its post-punk peers. Though there was some occasional dead time between songs, the performance was forceful and full of that kinetic energy that animates all of their records. The average Raincoats song is alive with a bunch of disparate elements—-teetering, wobbling, and careening so wildly that the moments when they all come together almost feel like happy accidents.
Da Silva wrote most of the band’s biggest hits and most immediate hooks: “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” “Shouting Out Loud,” “No Looking,” “The Void” (reportedly the personal favorite of Kurt and Courtney both)—-all of which made it onto Saturday’s set list. But it was Birch—-whose songs are more challenging on the records—-who cut an even more compelling live presence. For me, the highlight of the night was a run of two newer songs Birch sang mid-set: First, “Feminist Song,” an anthem about the delicate balance of being both angry and happy; its chorus asserts with weary pride, “The city made me this way.” Next came the searing, emotionally direct Shadows cut “Babydog,” which opens with Birch singing the line, “I thought I’d have a baby/But my body said no.” She gets a dog instead, and spends the rest of the song yelling about her love for the creature with equal parts exuberance and pathos. It was an arresting performance, drawing both cheers and tears from people around me.
This wasn’t nostalgia, exactly. Not a band trying to recapture note-for-note the youthful spirit of their heyday, but a performance that embraced maturity and bravely articulated the struggles that come with it—-and a crowd actively engaged in everything these women had to say. The Raincoats have stood for a lot of things over the years, and you got the sense on Saturday night that they were still working them out right there before us, very much alive.