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Ladyfest Report #3: Country Struggles To Find Place Among Punk

Showcase featuring Neko Case draws smaller crowd than other concerts.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Country singer/songwriter Neko Case almost didn't make it to Ladyfest.

While traveling from Portland, Ore., on Thursday afternoon, the van carrying Case and Her Boyfriends, as she calls her backing band, broke down, leaving them stranded in Kelso, Wash. But her friends at Ladyfest came to the rescue, dispatching a volunteer to pick them up and bring them to Capitol Theatre, where Case headlined that night's country showcase, the only themed show at the six-day women's arts festival.

On the surface, the country show — which also featured North Carolina quartet Trailer Bride and Carolyn Mark and Her Roommates — could appear to be a sharp deviation from Ladyfest's emphasis on punk and indie rock. But Case didn't see it that way.

"It's all the same thing," the red-haired, wide-eyed Case said as she sat on a curb outside the theater, sipping water to combat the dehydration that had resulted from hours in the sun. "It's the same fans. I think punk-rock fans have always been interested in new forms of music."

Later, as Case and her band performed a set that featured "Set Out Running" and "Guided by Wire" (RealAudio excerpt), from last year's Furnace Room Lullaby, there was evidence to support her assertion.

Alt-Country Looks For Its Audience

Tammy Martin, 22, a fan from Olympia, was among those front and center against the stage, her short, pink hair glowing in the lights as she did her own kind of one-woman square dance.

Yet on the whole, the country showcase drew a smaller and noticeably different audience than the two previous nights' performances. Held at the same venue, those shows featured punk trio the Butchies, hometown rockers Bangs, moody singer/songwriter Cat Power and others.

Crowds at the earlier shows comprised twentysomething young women, many

sporting chains, tattoos, piercings and vibrantly colored hair, but Thursday night's audience was predominantly older and more conservative-looking, and it had considerably more men.

Some speculated that a house party featuring punk bands Haggard and the Gossip, which overlapped with the country show, attracted a fair amount of the riot grrrls who had spent their first two nights of Ladyfest at Capitol Theatre.

"I'm bummed that more people didn't come," Martin said while sitting on the steps in the theater's lobby after the show. "No country bands ever come to Olympia."

That's precisely the reason why Cindy Wolfe, singer/songwriter for alt-country group Tennessee Twin, decided a country showcase was a must for Ladyfest. Wolfe said she tried unsuccessfully to convince organizers of Olympia's underground music fest Yoyo a Go Go to have a country-themed event last year. The organizers of Ladyfest, who include her sister Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, were more receptive.

"The whole alt-country movement is really trying to bring country back to what it was originally — really simple and beautiful," Wolfe said, adding that she finds much of the country music played on radio today to be "tuneless, talentless pop." "I hope this [showcase] is an eye-opener, because I think it's really important to reintroduce people to what country is supposed to be about."

Tennessee Twin played an early set Thursday night, as did Rose & Kathy Melberg and Daisy Duke.

Clad in party dresses and cowgirl hats, Vancouver, British Columbia, trio Daisy Duke got the crowd dancing with a set that featured a countrified cover of Prince's "Kiss" and Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man," along with original numbers.

Just A Step Beyond Punk

Daisy Duke singer Robyn Carrigan said she felt right at home playing at a festival that leaned heavily on punk rock, saying that country music has more in common with punk than most people think.

"Country, like punk, has that down-home thing that anybody can pick up the guitar and do it," she said. "It seems like a lot of people who are getting too old for punk are turning to country." And punk bands X, the Blasters, the Meat Puppets and Social Distortion offer some proof she's right.

Case and Trailer Bride, who are touring together, received the warmest receptions of the night, as the crowd beefed up and moved closer to the stage. With singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle delivering her aloof twang, Trailer Bride performed a no-nonsense set that featured older favorites such as "Porch Song" (RealAudio excerpt) mixed with newer tunes, including "Clermont Hotel," from Whine de Lune (1999).

"The reason I came to Ladyfest was to hear and see new things," said 18-year-old Emily Price of New York. "I don't listen to country, but this has been awesome."