Concert review: Vivian Girls (with Widowspeak) play outsider songs inside the Billiken Club, Wednesday, September 14
An intimate crowd of 100 or so gathered at the Billiken Club on the campus of St. Louis University for a free show headlined by Vivian Girls. The band commanded the stage for a 90-minute set of songs old and new, including selections from their recent release “Share the Joy.”
Widowspeak, also from Brooklyn, opened with a set of strong songs and proved a good choice to proceed Vivian Girls. The band has a Mazzy Star quality of sleepy, nascent sexuality. They covered Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” with a breathy sense of being lulled as well as haunted.
Then, Vivian Girls took the stage. The mostly collegiate crowd huddled in to experience their sound. If you’ve never seen the Vivian Girls — Cassie Ramone (lead vocals/guitar), Katy Goodman (bass, percussion, vocals) and Ali Koehler (vocals, drums) — envision a mash-up of the Lennon Sisters and mid-’90s Hole, or perhaps another sister act from the Lawrence Welk Show mixed up with an all-girl band from CBGBs.
Ramone’s complex vocals radiate from the mic, somewhere between Kurt Cobain mocking Hank Williams and her own individual voice wailing a song-scream. Koehler beat the shit out of those drums, keeping their feminine triangle connected by tight, sharp rhythmic pounding. Goodman’s excellent stage presence and bass skills whipped the performance into a jam for all to thrash along to. Her strawberry blonde pony tail and Biergarten-styled top, that just covered her tatted-up upper arms, exemplified the trio’s style. Seemingly innocent, with femininity delivered with poppy hooks and toe-tapping melodies — these were just surface features. Underneath the cream surface there was a razor-blade sound, a dangerous purring and pounding.
Overall, the set demonstrated that Vivian Girls are a rare presence: feminist artists in indie rock that appeal to both men and women. The song “Take It as It Comes” started with campy dialogue between Katy and Cassie; if your mom heard the tune she’d ask you if you’d gotten into her ’50s record collection. Cassie dedicated this one to the ladies of the audience. “Lake House” was a rollicking number that smacked of vintage Courtney Love with some vigorous guitar playing.
I remember first reading about Vivian Girls in a Rolling Stone review of their self-titled debut album in 2008. I was hoping that they borrowed their name from outsider artist Henry Darger, who penned a fantasy manuscript with the vast title “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” (There’s probably a dozen or so band names in that title alone.) Darger passed away in 1973, but Vivian Girls carry on with the spirit of outsider music.