This is definitely a trip down memory lane. In 1993, at the back end of an incredible summer featuring a scorching Glastonbury, I found myself at the Reading Festival and on the first day, firmly wedged between Stone Temple Pilots and The Butthole Surfers were tonight’s act, Babes in Toyland. The band had emerged several years prior to the grunge explosion of the early 90s but certainly benefitted from it once the band had established themselves after the release of second album Fontanelle in 1993. I had been at the festival the previous year and witnessed Kurt Cobain emerging on-stage in a wheelchair, but I also remember being blown away by bands such as the Lunachicks (I have a vague recollection of getting drunk with the girls in Leeds once…) and experiencing L7’s impulsive and bloody response to being pelted with the Berkshire mud. Babes in Toyland were of a similar ilk. Brutal and completely genuine, their sound was stripped back and primeval and with the outspoken Kat Bjelland on guitar and vocals, here was someone that the fans could really identify with.
Tonight’s partisan audience proves that this is still the case. Despite an official absence from the scene of approximately fourteen years, the show is a sell-out and appears to have attracted all manner of punters young and old. Indeed, many of those in the crowd must have barely been at school when the band officially disbanded, but many, like myself obviously still fondly remember those anarchic years, demonstrating the longevity of the genre and it’s characters. Tonight was going to be interesting to see if those years were being viewed through rose-tinted glasses.
First up were Skating Polly. The duo are an invigorating opening act and appear to be destined for great things. Full of a youthful exuberance as well as blistering energy, Kelli Mayo initially tears the place up on vocals before passing on these duties to Peyton Bighorse, who also swaps drums for guitar mid-way through the set. This provides a pleasing change of style and delivery, with the band proving to be quite subtle one moment and occasionally ferocious the next. The duo certainly demonstrate a range of influences ensuring a satisfying thirty minutes in their company that has the crowd suitably warmed up for the headline act.
Emerging to raucous applause, the band launch straight into Right Now from the aforementioned LP Fontanelle. Straight away, it becomes clear that the crowd are not here because they’d read about how great the band used to be back in the 90s. This crowd are obviously huge fans and prove to be wonderfully partisan throughout. This noticeably surprises Kat Bjelland as she quickly launches in to Bluebell, Bruise Violet and Swamp Pussy when the crowd bellow the songs’ lyrics back to her with joyful abandon. It may be more than fourteen years since these songs have been performed by Babes in Toyland, but the lyrics and attitude have been remembered! Maureen Herman is the epitome of cool on bass throughout. In the zone, she provides vital depth to Kat’s pulverizing guitar and this is all held together by Lori Barbero on drums, who contributes the vital foundations, tough, mighty and muscular, that the songs are built upon.
There is very little interaction from Kat and the rest of the band and the fifteen track setlist flies by in under fifty minutes. Before you know it, Lori has grabbed her handbag (I don’t remember that at the Reading Festival) and they’ve gone. The crowd demand more though and Kat and co re-emerge to perform a blistering Dust Cake Boy which has Skating Polly’s Kelli Mayo rocking and a massively grateful audience rolling in a heaving Gorilla, that won’t forget the return of this iconic band any time soon.
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Review by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto