The event was Burger-A-Go-Go, an all-day festival in suburban Orange County showcasing female-fronted bands, put on by local punk imprint Burger Records. Based on the lineup and location, I suspected a heavily female mix of punks, college kids, day trippers, proper adults, and young professionals, and that’s just what I found. I knew that my status as a solitary, half-engaged, mostly stoned fella would attract attention, and my premonition didn’t take long to actualize.
At the gate, a burly guard patted me down and emptied my pockets.
“You can’t bring that pen inside,” he said.
“I’m a writer. I’m covering this show.”
“How am I supposed to write?”
“Ask a bartender for a pen.”
I frowned and forked over my pen, too late and stoned to protest. I had a show to catch, and this wasn’t going to end in a win. Walking inside, I felt emasculated, like they’d robbed me of my power, my vitality.
The first two bars — both inside — insisted that they didn’t have the resources to spare a single pen. Outside, the bartender shook his head, hesitated, and delivered my ink-based salvation. Even if the uncapped, light-on-ink blue piece was a woefully inadequate writing instrument compared to my preferred Pilot G2, there was no way that I was going to take notes all day on my iPhone; I wasn’t going to be that guy.
With a tall can of Pabst in hand, I strolled into the main room for the start of The Aquadolls. Supported by a fuzzy beach rock backbone, frontwoman Melissa Brooks took full command of the stage with her bouncy energy and sugar-coated vocals. Coming off like a riot grrrl in a short skirt, she prowled the stage with a slinky, vampy sexuality that was far too forceful to seem exploitative. Her breezy chemistry with the crowd helped the cause, as the masses followed every call, from “Go crazy” to “Dance” to “Let’s mosh.” The videographer in the back even joined in the instigation, repeatedly gesturing for more life from the crowd to frame a more interesting shot.
For the last two songs of the set, Brooks invited the audience onstage to dance along. The first wave seemed like hardcore fans and genuinely enthused concert-goers, shimmying and shaking along to the beat. Halfway into the song, civilians had occupied the majority of the stage, a far more diverse set with broader intentions. Some scrambled to find the perfect camera-phone angle; some waved and thrusted at specific members of the audience; some shoved their hands in their pockets and tried to chat out of sheer awkwardness; and, eventually, one prize pedestrian elbowed to center stage: a middle-aged man with a mohawk, leather jacket (complete with punk patches), and no shirt. Despite the excellent musicianship occurring behind him, he forced his headbanging presence upon the audience and overshadowed the last number with his peacocking; that’s the hazard of entrusting your stage show to the hands of the fickle masses.
I smoked away the intermission, and scurried back inside to secure a seat for Summer Twins. Led by actual twins — Chelsea Brown on lead guitar and vocals, and Justine on drums and backup vocals — the band sailed through a set of buoyant dream-pop that came across like a sweeter, more upbeat Best Coast. They aroused my interest enough to stand up a few times and match the audio to a visual, but not enough to pry me from my seat entirely. Reading the crowd well, they closed with a soft around the edges take on No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” delivering just the right kind of cover: channeling the spirit of the original, while shifting the letter around to produce something original.
During the break, I caught breath and another smoke by the merch booth outside. As I puffed down time and space, a line formed to receive signatures and polite conversation from Melissa Brooks of the Aquadolls. As the mohawked brute leaned over to get his forehead signed, a duo of charged-up fresh faces mistook the rest of the band for the line; I saw where their priorities, and their memories, stood.
Next up was one of the most notable names on the bill, Kimya Dawson. Despite her stature in the indie rock world, my knowledge of her music was confined to The Moldy Peaches and solo offerings featured on the Juno soundtrack. Catering to unwashed masses’ and my ignorance, she started off with one of the Ellen Page-approved cuts, “Tire Swing,” and quickly established her formula of finger-picked acoustic guitar, delicately melodic vocals, hyper-literate lyrics, and genuine, shining personality. Every song came loaded with lines like “My worst nightmare is your favorite bar,” and “You’re probably cooler than a ninja warrior,” the perfect mix of insightful asides and absurdly specific non sequiturs. Whether it was an intricate deconstruction of a modern relationship or a simple children’s song about her love for bears, Dawson entranced the audience and provoked an overwhelming round of applause after every tune.
Though always enthusiastic, our participation sometimes missed the mark. On her last kid-friendly track, she taught us the chorus and expected us to join her in unison, but the crowd stuck to a ghostly echo. She laughed each time and tried to steer us on course, but we persisted in our off-time contribution. Eventually, she proclaimed, “You’re all on mushrooms.” With our next volley, she shook her head and said, “Maybe I’m on the mushrooms.”
After a few more songs that turned detailed confessionals into positive, universal statements of inclusion and acceptance, Dawson closed out her set with a targeted political track that incorporated stories and slogans from the Black Lives Matter movement to devastating effect. In the best distillation of the underlying logic and overall aims of the movement that I’ve seen or heard, she breathlessly detailed the abuses that provoked outrage and the basic human rights at stake. Her sing-song delivery only added to the unsettling nature of the material, and the crowd hung on her every word. At key moments and details, there were even roars of applause, although the affirmation of incisive insight seemed inappropriate when the cheers accompanied the gaping wounds of modern American society.
Immediately after, I rushed outside to collect myself over a smoke. While I sat on a narrow bench and grounded back to sunny, suburban Orange County, I talked the performance over with a few neighbors. Two of the polled witnesses admitted to crying during the final song, and we all agreed that its power and resonance were indisputable. Still, there was the stark awareness that, although we had collectively identified the problem, no one had any conception of the solution.
That heavy subject matter somehow spun into discussion of David Bowie and glam rock in general, and one of my new conversational partners got into her love for Marc Bolan. She talked about how the T-Rex frontman was deathly afraid of car crashes, how he talked about them all of the time and even got nervous riding around. He ended up dying in one, right after taping the final episode of his TV show, Marc , with Bowie as his special guest. Bolan could have been the victim of some cruel universal irony, or perhaps his death was a testament to the devastating power of vision fulfillment.
Back inside, we swiftly moved from prescience to punk precociousness, courtesy of Cherry Glazerr. A trio from Los Angeles consisting of two teenage girls (Clementine Creevy and Hannah Uribe) and a boy eking out of his early 20s (Sean Redman), Cherry Glazerr stuck to the day’s general aesthetic with a set of atmospheric dream-pop, but with a deeper, heavier layer of sludge. Creevy fills the lyric sheets with tales of playing hooky and eating grilled cheeses, while the backing instrumentation contains the simplicity needed to complement the material with enough complexity to come off, at their finest moments, like a Pixies daydream.
Bleached continued the trend with the heaviest set of the day. With a tighter, more driving outfit aided by the addition of another guitar, they played the kind of upbeat punk that’s perfect for cruising through a sunny afternoon, an effortless combination of simple, heavy chords, girl group harmonies, and just the right amount of sun-tinted polish. Towards the end of their time, they rolled out a Damned cover, and, unsurprisingly, it blended right into the rest of the set. This was the first, and perhaps only, truly rocking set of the day.
Another cigarette in the courtyard and we transitioned from reeling rock to a fully polished pop performance from Kate Nash. Clad in a full-body glitter suit and backed by an all-female band and stacks of old school TV sets, Nash yelped, belted, and prowled with the confidence of a fully prepped and well-experienced frontwoman. She tried hard to establish her rock bonafides, and sometimes succeeded with a few more rollicking numbers, but the qualities that once drew her comparisons to Lily Allen shined through no matter how many coats of grunge and rebellion she painted onto her self and songs. She had the energy and showmanship necessary to sell even the half-baked material, but I wondered what she could do with stronger writing with more distinct personality.
Fortunately, the two covers in her set provided just the occasion for such reflection. Early on, she brought Kimya Dawson back out for the classic Moldy Peaches duet, “Anyone Else But You,” and Nash more than held her own. The acoustic guitar-picking even seemed like a better platform for her vocal stylings. Later, she trotted out a full-band cover of Meredith Brooks’ late-90s anthem, “Bitch.” Armed with crowd-capturing lyrics and a simple, earworm of a melody to play off, Nash provided proof of concept with the clear highlight of her set.
As I sidled up to the chain-link fence to while away another intermission, I caught the ear of a solo, mid-30s man that looked just a touch out of place — maybe, about as much as I did. He had come specifically to see Kim Gordon, who was performing next with her new project, Glitterbust. I nodded in agreement, and expressed my interest in some Sonic Youth-level noise. We were so certain that we were in for a real show.
Rather than take my usual post towards the back of the room, I pushed closer to the front; from the get-go, Glitterbust did little to justify my maneuvering. Gordon and her bandmates unleashed a tuneless wall of noise, an accumulation of atonal feedback, crumbling rhythms, and garbled vocals that only occasionally sounded like words. You could say that there were no choruses, but I couldn’t identify verses either. Without breaks between the songs, the entire set blended into one indiscernible soup of white light without the heat. I considered that, if this was all building up into one glorious payoff, even one thundering riff or mountain of noise, that it could be justified — it never did.
In, perhaps, the most directly engaging and entertaining performance of the night, Kathleen Hanna-fronted The Julie Ruin proved that their inclusion on the bill was not merely scenic nostalgia. Hanna came out firing from the start, whirling around in a relentless spray of energetic yelps and joyous exuberance. With a tight band of musicians behind her (including former Bikini Kill bandmate, Kathi Wilcox) and songs that stylistically descended from her previous work with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, Hanna veered between syrupy croons and cutting roars, at that tip of the hat. Throughout the set, the infamous riot grrrl hit the perfect balance of raw strength and sincere femininity, displaying why she is a well-deserved icon in the scene she helped start.
I was already fading by the end of The Julie Ruin, but I had to stay strong for what was, probably, my most anticipated act of the day: Cat Power. About ten minutes after the set time passed, Chan Marshall strolled onstage by herself and settled in with an acoustic guitar and a mic. She quietly slipped right into a mellow mix of lazily strummed melody and reverb-drenched vocals, a beautiful and gently stirring one-two punch. Unfortunately, I had just spent the last nine hours shuffling through dense crowds and sticky air, having my head assaulted by a diverse barrage of loud stimuli, and swaying in time in a decreasingly enthusiastic manner; four or five songs into the set, I had to leave, in fear of falling asleep right on the floor. I wish she had come on earlier, or that I’d arrived later, or that something else had happened to better align reality with expectation. Still, I was content with the lullaby that she left me with on my way out the door.