Girls Rock NC Rally
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014

At an evening in commemoration of Girls Rock NC’s 10 years of existence, especially one dubbed a rally, one might be forgiven for expecting a night of motivational speeches and rousing invective from the stage. To be sure, between-band songs by the likes of ESG and the Go-Go’s sent a subtly woman-centric message, but the atmosphere was rather one of inclusion at Cat’s Cradle on Saturday night. The focus of the evening, the reason for being and the most eloquent statement of purpose was just the music. That was more than enough.

The eight acts that shared the Cradle’s main space and back room were united (mostly) by gender and outlook, but they took various routes to self-expression. While the name Girls Rock NC accurately describes the essential spirit of the operation, a breadth of flavors were offered. There were the poetic rap inflections of Shirlette Ammons, who brought her niece onstage to add vocals. The refined alt-country of Mount Moriah—whose frontwoman Heather McEntire is Girls Rock NC’s program director—had little to do with punk rock, although Jenks Miller’s spidery lead lines occasionally recalled those of Tom Verlaine in Television. Still, hard-rockin’ riffs were in abundance, often delivered by trios, like Durham’s Pink Flag and Chapel Hill’s Midnight Plus One, whose singer Casey Cook reminded me of the feral howl of N.C.’s own Fetchin’ Bones.

The night’s most rousing and anticipated performances were united by a righteous fury tempered by an infectious sense of fun and freedom. Ex Hex, a recent signing by event sponsor Merge Records, exemplified that spirit. Frontwoman Mary Timony, an indie rock veteran best known as leader of the revered ’90s outfit Helium, has tamed some of her experimental tendencies to fashion songs of gleeful, primal allure. The visual impact of the band was part of the charm. Timony and bassist Betsy Wright slowly vamped toward each other, fingers moving over fretboards and eyes reflecting mutually smiling eyes. This was intimate—real and unfettered, like the sharing of a wonderful secret.

Urged on by the primal oomph of drummer Laura Harris, the songs from the soon-to-be-released Rips were visceral and unignorable; the single “Hot and Cold” sounded like a lost garage nugget dipped in glam-rock glitter. In a move that likely got lost among all but the most dedicated lovers of pop arcana, Ex Hex covered “All Kindsa Girls” by first-wave Boston pop punkers the Real Kids. It was both a wry nod to the event and a welcome twist on the usual songs-about-girls-as-sung-by-boys trope. The audience reveled in the vibes; there was far more dancing and hugging than at your average Cradle show, for sure.

The evening’s final act, The Julie Ruin, had some inherent heaviness attached. Led by Kathleen Hanna, founder of Bikini Kill and embodiment of the 1990s riot grrrl movement, the band was on hand to play its first performance since canceling a recent tour due to Hanna’s struggles with Lyme disease. Happily, any notion that we would be witnessing a compromised Kathleen Hanna was quickly burst. She and her four-piece band made their entrance to mock-mournful keyboard tones playing “Love is All Around,” the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It was a tongue-in-cheek way of declaring that “she’s gonna make it after all,” before the band burst into an explosive groove. It was clear that the issues that had kept Hanna from the stage were, at least for that moment, overcome.

The band moved from a spiky gallop, recalling the off-kilter verve of post-punk groups like the Slits, to reverb-rich garage riffs, while Hanna’s vocals veered from an almost-cartoon kewpie to sassy sprechgesang to primal wordless Yoko Ono-isms. Throughout, Hanna cut an animated, perpetually boogie-ing figure. Her enthusiasm for the event, and for performance in general, could neither be denied nor held back.

“It’s like I’ve landed in Oz,” she said between songs.

At one point she dedicated a song to Chris Stamey, whom she credited for helping her take control of her music by bringing her to a critical realization.

“I’m not just a feminist performance artist,” she proclaimed. “I can make music!”