PUSSY RIOT 7-11

some shitty picture I took among the chaos

Cause and effect can be a beautiful, mysterious thing. As in, the furthest thing from the mind of AL Governor Kay Ivey and various GOP leaning lawmakers when they passed a (tiny lil) controversial abortion bill in the early summer of 2019 that one of the far reaching effects would be setting the megaphone bullseye sights of renegade punk protest outfit PUSSY RIOT squarely over the city of Birmingham. And you know what, they probably truly don’t care about the things that went on in The Saturn on this Thursday night, but that does little to curb the significance of this band playing in this town- the political powder keg city of the American South.

I’m going to admit I’m probably not the most qualified person to be covering this show. For starters, I shamefully allowed this show to sell out on me instead of jumping on it like a live grenade, having been traveled north to participate with a troupe of musicians in Florence in a (mostly) self entertaining, booze fueled yacht rock revue. It was there I was informed that the show had already been blanked on tickets while I was backstage sipping Basil Hayden from a Gatorade bottle after witnessing a spirited attempt at Bowie’s “Young Americans”. Yeah, some punk rocker I turned out to be. So the night of the show I did what my fathers and fathers did before me- drive downtown in the rain with no ticket or plan, just show up at the venue and see what happens.

The thing about Pussy Riot is that they are simply inseparable from politics and especially political controversy. Tonight’s show is a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood and the Yellowhammer Foundation in Alabama; a direct answer to the firestorm legislation passed. And when they arrive, the protesters arrive with them- angry chanters and antagonists on both sides have been here by the time I arrive and most of them seem to have run out of gas and/or gotten wet enough to calm down for a while. Some are still willing to stand around and give dirty looks to those in line, while signature seekers patrol up and down looking to get their petitions filled. I’m standing on the sidewalk trawling my phone when a lady approaches me and asks if I’m going to the show. “Well, eventually” I reply, nodding toward the line snaking down the street waiting to be security checked in (full body metal wand scans for this one, no chances being taken). She asks what I mean. “Well, I put my faith in the rock gods and they light my path…for I am one of their own, you see.” She ponders this for moment- “Oh….well anyway, I’ve got an extra ticket and I was just coming down here to see if anyone needed it.” Who doubts our gods now? I had been given favor for my faith and now it was showtime. Thankyoujesus, Thankyoulord. (Note: I know that PR played Hangout Fest some time ago- but that DOES NOT count as “playing Alabama”)

Now, from this point on I’m going to do my best to report on the show itself, with the bare minimum of my political and social beliefs, despite the very existence of the band is to provoke both. My goal here is to paint a picture of what happens at a Pussy Riot show. The hilarious part of this is that I haven’t actually been on top of the most recent output of Pussy Riot (last thing in my collection from them is their incredible covers album Won’t Get Fooled Again) and am fully under the impression this is still a punk outfit. I was wrong. Actually, I think MOST of the capacity crowd was in the same boat as me but it just didn’t matter- Pussy Riot is an experience, not a greatest hits revue. The group takes the stage late, allowing for everyone to be properly wanded and secured, three girls in the signature dayglo ski masks, and co-founder Nadya Tolokonnikova up front, in a half ski mask and wearing what looks kind of like a kimono (I could be way off on this. If I am , don’t hate me I’m ignorant) and they blast off into “Police State” – a brilliant track that could double as a pop gem with an earworm hook and a great beat, powered faithfully by Nikita Chaika behind a DJ setup and dressed in something like a hazmat suit. There is a giant video wall, but that shit is blank. After the song, the group consults among themselves, and with body language somewhat slumped, promptly exit the stage.

Minutes later Nadya and her crew return, she pulls down her mask and sweetly thanks the crowd for attending and mentions how nervous she has been for this show in particular. She tells us that PR is an audio visual collective and apologizes because the video wall is very important to what they do but there is some technical difficulties. After this, they soldier on- Nadya singing aggressively over backing tracks that contain a “dangerous level” of bass according to the girl next to me, and backed by her three anonymous ski masked girls, dancing along somewhat coordinated, like deranged hype girls.

You know I must say this, and I’m not trying to be critical- but they weren’t joking about needing the video wall. Without it? The performance is off-center. You can’t understand Nadya unless you know Russian-over-PA, the hype girl dancing and the lack of people playing instruments leaves the feeling like there is something big missing here, and you can sense the frustration of the artists between songs. BUT THEN something magical happens. The video wall springs to life. Photo montages, propaganda phrases flashing amongs pop culture images, superimposed English lyrics flash along to the vocals, all with those crazy girls freestyle dancing in front of it. It’s a surreal, intense, vivid display and comes together perfectly. Oh yeah, now I get it.

The group rips through their electro hip hop influenced singles with a second wind: “Song For Good Cop” , “Bad Girls (bring that bass)” , “Bad Apples” (bad apples are good for something, six feet under ground!”), “Unicorn Freedom” is probably my favorite, the group coming at the crowd in prize fighter stances, singing about how they will stand up to the corrupt powers that be and the unicorn has their back, as digital 16 bit unicorns cascade down the screen. The song, written as a demand of Russian teenager Anya Pavlikova’s release from prison, is the perfect primer for the group. It’s catchy, it seems innocent, but it is directly standing up to a corrupted opposition that has sadly, and often, resulted in very real and dark consequences for the ones who have stood with them. It’s with this credibility that they are able to say what they want on stage and it not come across as shock-pandering (and they do- at one point Nadya declares “I have an 11 year old daughter and I will die for her right to an abortion if she needs it”). And I do want to take a moment to note that, being as close as I am, Nadya is not just pretty but she is BEAUTIFUL. And I don’t mean this in the “girl lead singer is hot” drivel, but this woman radiates a coolness and confidence from the stage that matches her natural beauty -and it’s worth mentioning this because she has this all intact despite stints in a Siberian prison, being hospitalized there and partaking in hunger strikes. These things have tragically have drained the youth and life out of (too) many people, and it’s inspiring to see that it has not taken that toll.

The final song (that I remember, I was kind of buzzed) contained this amazing video wall segment that depicts the band in different 8 bit video game environments; Oregon Trail , Zelda, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!, …and some more and I was intently focused on this and trying to ignore the attempted mosh pit around me (and not entirely successful).

One of my final impressions of the show is that I know many people, many who wouldn’t have voluntarily found themselves in this crowd, facing the external obstacles to attend, who have really admired what these women stand for and have found a receptive audience. And this may be where I come across as controversial- I believe often a good thing can find itself withing TOO welcoming of a crowd- like a preacher trying to save lost souls in a church full of believers. The crowd tonight I comfortably can say was some mixture of moderate-to-extreme extreme left, and my question is…how do you reach your message to those that are more middle of that aisle? Maybe a question for another time, another challenge for the art collective to handle. As for me, I made the stage-scanned pan shot of the crowd so I have that going for me- preserved my place in history that I was there when Pussy Riot played Alabama.

you can follow Pussy Riot on IG @wearepussyriot https://www.instagram.com/wearepussyriot

you can visit the Yellowhammer Fund here https://yellowhammerfund.org/

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