Ladyfest Report #4: Sleater-Kinney Channel Festival's Message

Six-day women's conference reaches peak during indie-rock trio's performance.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — As Sleater-Kinney rocked their hometown's Capitol Theatre on Saturday, they and the hundreds of women in the crowd celebrated the climax of the first Ladyfest arts and activism conference.

Carrie Brownstein moved as though she were being pulled by her guitar, surging her body forward and back, and then suddenly rupturing into a spin. Janet Weiss stared down at the center of her drum kit, nodding her head to her beats, while singer/guitarist Corin Tucker tossed her head back and winced as her voice rose to its distinctive quavering pitch.

Looking out at the predominantly female crowd, Tucker sang the climax lines of "#1 Must Have" (RealAudio excerpt). "Culture is what we make it/ Yes it is/ Now is the time/ To invent. Invent! Invent! Invent!"

It could have been the slogan for the six-day Ladyfest, a conference organized by women for women (though men were welcome) that celebrated female achievements in art, music and activism, while urging attendees to explore and build on their own creativity, abilities and causes.

Daily workshops focused on everything from guitar playing to self-defense and from sewing to bike repair, while discussions and panels addressed such topics as sexism, gender issues, body image and assault.

Among the more than 50 acts who performed were moody singer/songwriter Cat Power, indie punks Bratmobile, the Butchies, singer/songwriter Sarah Dougher, country singer Neko Case, British rocker Holly Golightly and Helium singer Mary Timony, as well as hometown rockers Bangs, the Need and the Gossip.

"There are so many young girls here at this event that are seeing women being creative, being funny, being interesting, being really strong onstage," Tucker said as she hung out with friends outside Capitol Theatre on Friday night. "They're not just watching a woman being judged on how she looks or things that aren't based on her creative power. We can't really measure what the effect that will be, but at least they will know there are many more possibilities."

Festivalgoers Inspired By Event

Ülte Höelzl, 27, who traveled with two friends from Vienna, Austria, vowed to pick up bass again because of her experience at Ladyfest. "Seeing all these women perform is a new impetus to play," she said.

More than 1,000 people, predominantly women in their late teens and 20s, attended the festival, held 60 miles south of Seattle in Olympia, a city that has long been a haven for indie music, labels and festivals. The latest issue of Time magazine declares Olympia "the hippest town in the West" in a story about the city's music scene.

Many of the Ladyfest bands, such as Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney, have roots in the riot grrrl movement, a subgenre of indie rock that burgeoned in the Pacific Northwest and Washington, D.C., in the early '90s. The movement was marked by fiercely feminist lyrics and a raw musical approach, as it upheld the notion that any woman with something to say could rock.

"This is about what a girl wants and what she certainly does not need," singer Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile said as she introduced a new song Friday night, playing on the lyrics to pop singer Christina Aguilera's hit "What a Girl Wants."

Clad in a sleeveless, tight, red-and-black dress, Wolfe shouted out the song's lyrics as she delivered go-go-style aerobic dance moves, exposing unshaven armpits while flailing her arms. Everything about her performance seemed to conjure a feeling of free expression. Bratmobile, who recently reunited after a six-year hiatus, offered such classic rants "Cool Schmool" (RealAudio excerpt) and "The Real Janelle" in their headlining set, which followed performances by Lois and Lost Goat.

Wolfe spearheaded the idea for Ladyfest, which came together with the help of 55 volunteers, including the members of Sleater-Kinney, Dougher and Donna Dresch.

Do-It-Yourself Ethics

"I hope [Ladyfest] provides for a lot of inspiration, especially for women who aren't from such supportive communities as Olympia, to start doing something of their own, whether it's organizing an art show or writing a rock opera or starting a band or learning how to play drums or teaching their friends how to fix their bikes," said Sarah Utter, singer/guitarist for Bangs, who performed Tuesday night.

Utter led a workshop on guitar basics Tuesday that drew about 45 women and ended with a free-for-all in which attendees tested what they learned.

Saturday afternoon a group of about 40 women and a few men sat in a circle in the back room of the Voyeur — one of several Olympia venues that hosted Ladyfest events — learning songs about patriarchy protest and women's liberation.

"As we go marching marching/ We're standing proud and tall/ For the rising of the women/ Means the rising of us all," they sang in a tune called "Bread and Roses," their voices growing louder with each line.

The Amalgamated Everlasting Union Chorus from Portland, Ore., ran the workshop and invited attendees to join them during a performance at Capitol Theatre that night.

"Anybody can sing," said chorus member Marisa Anderson, who was wearing a body-armor vest made of plastic over a black sequined dress. "So let's kill the idea that you have to be somebody else to be onstage."