Temperatures dropped all day. And that night, once the sun went down and the wind was whipping between the tall buildings of Centre City, I felt the first chill of winter. It's coming.
I walked toward the First Unitarian Church in precipitation that was somewhere between heavy mist and light rain. It was cold enough that I held close to buildings, making use of their awnings whenever possible. I walked by the rectory, looking through open doorways and lit windows for some clue as to where the show might be happening. When a group of kids walked past me heading the other direction, I spun around and followed them. Around the corner, through a gate, down a stone stairway into a vestibule, and out of the rain. The anxious doorman stressed that the doors didn't open until 8:00, and thought about sending us back out. "Oh my god, is it raining?" he asked. The girls in front of me giggled and pointed to their long dripping hair in response. Our shelter was secured.
As the clock approached 8, we were allowed through the doorway and into the rather ordinary recreation room in the church basement. For the next half hour, groups arrived into the room whereupon they promptly sat on the floor, each group forming a separate pod. While the sound engineers finished their work, I consciously (I'm afraid conspicuously) cleaned my lenses and waited. The 8:15 start time passed. 8:30 passed. And it was 8:40 when Elliot Harvey came to the stage.
Harvey is a small androgynous man with a thin frame, soft features, and a high voice that he used majestically in his largely a cappella opening number. As the song continued, it grew and morphed with the help of a looping foot pedal that Harvey used double his voice upon itself, and with minimal accenting electric bass. I was spellbound, thinking that this rich, soaring piece would have been more at home in the church's grandiose sanctuary upstairs. When that song finished, Harvey moved to accompany himself with a banjo on a second tune. And then a lute. And then on guitar. And ultimately on a small keyboard that he balanced on his lap. One song per instrument, and one instrument per song. Several numbers into the set, Harvey timidly explained that the name of his project is "A Stick And A Stone," and that "sometimes it contains more people, but tonight it was just [him]." The only other direct interaction with the audience came a song later when Harvey perked up, and announced that, by accident, the setlist was travelling in reverse chronological order – that is from the newest material to the oldest. While the quasi-religious experience of that experimental opener soon settled into a more standard singer/songwriter rhythm, Harvey's wordy lyrics and phenomenal voice control never let the short 25-minute performance be anything less than amazing.
After his set, Harvey hurriedly cleared the stage of all his gear so quickly it was as if he were being scolded. Moments later, a banner with rainbows, prancing unicorns, and the phrase "Fanning the flames of fag lust" was hung at the back of the stage. And just as quickly, another slight figure stood on the stage, ready to perform.
As with the opener, Seattle's Your Heart Breaks is the project of a singular person that occasionally swells to include others – sometimes many others. On this tour, it's just Clyde Petersen and his electric guitar. Petersen is an androgynous genderqueer with thick glasses, short hair, and a deftly wry sense of humour. He's enthusiastic, playful, and a bit nerdy. Serious issues of gender politics permeate much of Your Heart Breaks' lyrics, yet songs are more likely to reference Star Trek than Audre Lorde.
Petersen's voice is soft, and his songs teem with narrative lyrics in the tradition of John Darnielle (of Mountain Goats), Jeffrey Lewis, and, of course, Kimya Dawson. His connection to the folk punk world of Plan-it-X is obvious, but was further cemented when he covered "All Punks Got." That song was written by Samantha Jane Dorsett, the Plan-it-X Records founder, a transgendered woman, and a particularly bright beacon of activism for this subset of the DIY scene, who sadly took her own life several years ago. But this wasn't a somber moment – in fact, it was during this song that two fans jumped up, held hands, and danced a very silly and joyful dance amidst the seated fans. "All punks got is each other" indeed.
Petersen brought Kimya Dawson up for a quick duet during the 30-minute set, before returning to the earlier space theme for her final number – a re-imagined telling of the Apollo 11 launch entitled "God Speed John Glen". As with an earlier song where a refrain of "She's not dumb but she can't understand / How I look like a woman but talk like a man" paraphrased The Kinks' "Lola," this song drew on both Elton John's "Rocketman" and David Bowie's "Major Tom." It also involved a rather ribald John Glenn sneaking friends and family along on the rocket.
Although the stage was ready after only five minutes, headliner Kimya Dawson elected not to rush onto it. While she took the time to settle her daughter Panda into a fort built of folding chairs and sleeping bags, I jotted down notes for this account. In between my disjointed adjectives, I looked around at the audience – probably 250 fans. Most of them young. Most of them girls, but there was also a smattering of boyfriends that seemed genuinely pleased to be there. Is Kimya Dawson girl music? How much would she hate to have that (or any other label) hoisted upon her art? So let's say her music is frequently empowering to girls coming of age. Lines like "I like giants / Especially girl giants / Cause all girls feel too big sometimes / Regardless of their size" change lives. Lines like that, although delivered through the slightly less subtle riot grrl movement of the mid '90s, changed my life and the life of every punk rock girl I dated. Every one of them cried and roared along to lines like that when delivered by Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna or Brat Mobile's Allison Wolfe. And I learned something too – as Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler said so obviously yet revolutionarily, I learned "the radical notion that women are people." I was excited to see Kimya Dawson, not because she was my generation's voice (Dawson is actually younger than me), but because she is the continuation of a movement that shaped so much of my scene, my life, and my identity.
At 10:10 Kimya Dawson climbed onto the stage. Dawson is all layers of soft fabrics and comfortable tennis shoes. Her wild hair held under a babushka, her arms and legs riddled with primitive tattoos, and the left side of her face covered by a red octopus – a face painting likely acquired during her visit to the aquarium with Panda earlier that day. Her acoustic guitar is well worn and covered with scrawled graffiti that I couldn't quite read. She sat down in a chair, thanked the audience, and began a 75-minute set drawn largely from her recent solo album.
But that's not where it started; it started with 2004's "Singing Machine" – a song that sets the stage nicely with the lyrics "Sounds silly but it's not a game, making music makes me sane / I sing away my pain and everything turns out okay / And I'm not talking fame and glory, 'cause that's a different story / This story is about how truth and love can save the day." This is why Dawson is on the stage. Because she has to be. But this is a sticking point for Dawson and her daughter who just doesn't understand the necessity. As if an effort to bridge the two worlds of touring musician and nurturing mother, Dawson quickly transitioned into a trio of songs written for, and, in one case, with, daughter Panda. These were the lightest moments of the set, the ones that elicited giggles from the otherwise hushed crowd. The Juno-included "Tire Swing" followed shortly afterwards and the majority of the audience sang along. Dawson got confused hearing her own lyrics coming back to her. She stopped, laughed, and then continued. When the song was over the thanked the audience for singing along. But then it got heavy. And then it got heavier.
First, let's talk about the things that don't change. Dawson's scratchy guitar frailing didn't change throughout the night. Her curious strum is a supportive background for her vocal melodies and lyrics, but her playing seldom draws attention and there are never guitar melody lines. Similarly, her musical composition doesn't vary much from song to song. To point, during the set Dawson begin strumming, and was tickled to hear applause. She stopped to ask if someone was just applauding a G chord, and explained all of her songs start that way. She then joked "Yay! She's playing all of her songs." Finally Dawson's voice doesn't change. It's forlorn and friendly, but also swallowed and thin. Voice coaches would have nothing great to say about it, but Dawson imbues it with such emotion that it is strikes directly at the listener's heart. It's this emotional delivery combined with poignant, beautifully sad, sincere, and revelatory lyrics that brought the mood of the evening, and seemingly Dawson too, down.
This end of Dawson's set with weighted with the epic narratives "Walk Like Thunder" and "Same Shit / Complicated," both from her latest album. They tell stories of loss, disappointment, confusion, and perseverance. They're gut wrenching and singing them is visibly difficult for Dawson. Her face contorts as the gasps for breath and her eyes swell. The audience's do too. Dawson told a story during this portion of the set about her family home. A story she contended was apropos of nothing, but very obviously contributed to her mood. A story about a house built by her great-grandfather in New York and how her parents ultimately lost the house when they were unable to keep up with the rising tax assessment on the property. The day before this show she took a trip to that house, and found that it had been sitting empty for some time. She entered the house illegally (as if anyone had more of a claim on the property than her) and was crestfallen to find it deteriorating. Her voice broke telling this story. Ultimately Dawson decided she she should continue the show, but she did add one trailing question that she hasn't been able to answer: "How can there be so many people who sleep outside, when there are so many empty houses."
The night ended with "You Are My Baby" – a touching unreleased song written for Panda that expresses the universal longings a mother has for her children. Before the song, she confessed that she would rather be in that makeshift fort with Panda, and that if Panda asks that of her, Dawson is ready to retire from the stage for the sake of that bond. When the song was over Dawson hurried into that fort. When I attempted to visit 15 minutes later, the fort was still full of mother and daughter and crying. It was a rough night for this little family trying to answer some complicated questions. This personal struggle, however selfish and voyeuristic this may sound, makes for stirring, significant art. In fact, it made for one of the best performances I'd seen all year.