Babes in Toyland formed in a post-punk musical underground where boys could wear dresses and girls could rage in combat boots. Their powerful music made most bands sound anemic by comparison, and this remained true up until their farewell gig in 2001. Last night’s searing 45-minute comeback set – featuring 13 songs from their three influential albums, held at the Roxy on L.A.’s Sunset Strip – suggested that this might be true again today.
“I said I’d never, ever do a reunion,” singer Kat Bjelland told Rolling Stone late last year, explaining the change in heart that led to a new tour. ” I just got older and changed my mind, I guess. My son is 15, and I wanted him to see us play. I’ve played in bands after Babes in Toyland, but I missed my friends.”
Appropriately, last night’s show brought together more than just the band members, as the Roxy became the temporary home for a group of tight-knit Minneapolis musicians who had decamped to West Coast in the years since punk broke. Drummer Lori Barbero warmly greeted friends and Minnesota ex-pats on the street outside the venue; Bjelland and bassist Maureen Herman casually milled through the crowd as people entered; and a border-less pantheon of punk and alternative rock icons – Exene Cervenka, Patty Schemel, Brody Dalle, Eric Erlandson and various members of the Melvins and Jesus Lizard – were all in attendance.
Tom Morello, another L.A. transplant, welcomed the trio to the stage with a heartfelt introduction, recalling how he first fell in love with Babes in Toyland when Rage Against the Machine played with them on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. For him, the Babes have always been a study of contrasts – fearsome power onstage and kindness off. Their subsequent set suggested he might be right: When singing, Bjelland’s voice was heavy with growling menace, but when she addressed the audience, she spoke in a gentle voice and thanked the crowd repeatedly.
The band opened with “Jungle Train,” and by the time they kicked into their third song, “Bluebell,” the ever-present camera phones were replaced by a throbbing pit. “Handsome Gretel” was a powerhouse. “Swamp Pussy” still had all of its existential angst. “Won’t Tell” allowed Bjelland to flash her signature wide-eyed glare, and all the while, Barbero playfully engaged the audience and drummed with singular focus. When she sang lead on “Drivin,” she hypnotically built her vocals up to a barbaric howl.
“Bruise Violet” received some of the loudest cheers of the night, and the imagery of title speaks to the band’s struggles as musicians and women: Like the nuances of discolored flesh that form a bruise heals, Babes in Toyland’s career has contained beauty, injury, pain and resilience. The band has clearly grown – just not into something sedate. In his introduction, Morello aptly called them “the princesses of punk, the matriarchs of metal and the goddesses of grunge – riot girls that are now riot moms.” Where they once served as role models for a new generation of female musicians who would pick up instruments and teach themselves to play, the gleeful passion of their return show proved once again that comebacks – if done right – can be more than nostalgia trips.