What if there was a revolution and no-one came?
It happened, once. 20 years ago, it was possible to go and see Kathleen Hanna play in the upstairs room of a pub to an audience of perhaps 40 people. The band she played with, Bikini Kill, were nearing the end of a six week slog round the bottom rung of the European circuit, and the media frenzy that accompanied their previous British tour had long since faded. They were fine, good even, but the tour had left them tired and, as it would turn out, they would fizzle out within the year to little notice, beyond a few messages on one of the punk newsgroups.
Hanna didn’t stay static however, and despite a long-term struggle with illness, her profile has grown in the wake of a raft of Riot Grrrl-themed books and even a documentary, The Punk Singer, positioning her as the de facto figurehead of the movement, whether it was a crown she was happy wearing or not. Her absence from the stage – these dates were rescheduled from last year – has done little to diminish interest; if anything, it only stoked anticipation for those who grew up with the records – and for those wishing to re-acquaint themselves with their younger selves.
The Julie Ruin, a full band upgrade of what was originally a Hanna solo vehicle, don’t stray so far from what she’s always done: punky garage rock, with sprinkles of goofy new wave and electro pop depending on the vehicle. This year’s album, Hit Reset, solidifies rather than extends that format, but to no ill effect. Her main weapon is still that voice, switching from girlish sing-song to full-throated roar; they do ‘Apt. #5’ from that eponymous album – which leads into a lengthy discussion about its out-of-print status and the issues surrounding its re-release – and you’re reminded of that idea for a Kickstarter campaign for the ‘Kathleen and a piano’ album you always hankered after.
This being the last night of the tour, one might expect a hair-down, kick-off-the-shoes air – and it is an often very funny, booty-shaking night – but it’s tempered with post-US election fears and frustration. A couple of representatives from Girls Against, the grassroots organisation leading the good fight with regards harrassment at gigs say a few words and Hanna is visibly moved, aware of the struggles many still face on an everyday level. And her own situation is still raw; not knowing what the future will bring, she notes that she might not play live again. Or she might. Either way, that decision will be hers, and hers alone (‘I Decide’, indeed). For the encore, ‘Let Me Go’ seems to take on a new meaning in the wake of Hanna’s aside, before a floor-shaking ‘Rebel Girl’ brings everything full circle.
Sure, when Bikini Kill split, there was barely a ripple. But the seeds were planted. There might only have been 40 people at that show, but now there’s 400 in the room. Even if Hanna never plays another note, that change is real and tangible. It’s visible in the kids doing their thing and in the oldies keeping on. Not a bad legacy, all told.