The Agit Reader

Trocadero Theater, Philadelphia, April 13

April 23rd, 2018  |  by Brian O'Neill

Openers Death Valley Girls look and sound like they stepped out of a ‘80s cartoon about what a rock band should look and sound like. Right now you’re thinking Jem and The Holograms, and you’re not entirely wrong.

Almost all of this impression is due to Bonnie Bloomgarden. The vocalist wears a cute red dress with black hair and black stockings. She skips and skits around the stage playing retro-looking keys and, sometimes, a guitar. In between songs, she speaks in a Betty Boop falsetto in a way that is much more endearing than annoying. The songs themselves are spazzy Technicolor rock & roll tales of UFO abductions and the like. If you cannot have fun watching the Los Angeles band, there’s no hope for you.

In retrospect, maybe there was no hope for L7, at least, to break through in a major commercial way. It seems criminal that Bricks Are Heavy never even reached gold status in America since it was in many ways the quintessential grunge record.

A lot of people hate that word (likely including L7 themselves), but while it was a term made up by the media, it still does a good job of neatly tying together the heavy rock bands that exploded out of the alt-rock ‘90s, merging metal and punk without pretense. Although a different meshing of similar parts first happened a decade earlier with thrash, that truce occurred in an underground vacuum. Rock radio never played D.R.I., MTV never played Cryptic Slaughter, and Lollapalooza wasn’t around for them to play on the second stage.

L7 were the perfect ambassadors for the time. They recorded for Epitaph and Sub Pop before being snatched up by Slash/Warner Bros. for the Butch Vig–produced 1992 Bricks opus. It was just like the band: smart and full of attitude, but with an accessibility that should have earned them more than just critical acclaim. Instead, they wound up being one of the Steve Albini–prophesized major label bands with more debt than royalties.

The wonderful Pretend We’re Dead documentary that came out last year tells the tale of the band living like rock stars on the road in busses paid for with credit they could never repay. The neat thing about the flick is that it relies on contemporaneous video footage instead of modern interviews clouded by nostalgia and selective memory. So it doesn’t really examine why L7 didn’t take off.

It doesn’t have to. It’s pretty obviously sexism.

It was sexism that kept them from getting on a lot of radio playlists. The fact they were girls worked its way into all press, even the most flattering pieces. They didn’t dress any differently than their male counterparts and rocked a hell of a lot harder, but that didn’t stop them from being perceived as part of a second tier.

The band’s two most enduring tales involve Donita Sparks tossing her tampon at a mud-slinging Reading Festival crowd and Beavis & Butt-head confusing them for The Bangles. ‘Nuff said.

The reformed L7 don’t dwell on this, but you have to know that they realize that it’s one of the reasons Trump is our president. That fact inspired “Dispatch From Mar-a-Lago,” the first new music in 18 years for the band that was rush-released last September.

“We had to rush this out because we thought he might be impeached,” Sparks said in introducing the track. It’s the B-side to the more recently released “I Came Back to Bitch” single. The catchy, glammy riffs are emblematic of the band’s past and makes you think the future album due out next year on Don Giovanni Records will do nothing to tarnish L7’s legacy.

The band is cognizant of that legacy. A third of the setlist was devoted to Bricks Are Heavy, including the sinister bass-thumping of “Monster,” which segued into “Everglade” sung by Jennifer Finch. (The phrase “Rednecks on parade” still makes me giggle.) They also played “Scrap,” the bouncy and self-explanatory “Shitlist,” and the grinding “One More Thing,” sung by Finch, whose underlying melody makes it one of the most under-repped songs of their catalog.

The band also performed a smattering of “hits” from its other ‘90s releases; faves included the chunky “Andres” off 1994’s Hungry for Stink and, from The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, the sludgy “Must Have More,” both sung by Suzi Gardner. It’s always been cool that L7 splits up the lead vocal duties.

The band played only one track from their disjointed 1999 swansong Slap-Happy and nothing off their 1988 eponymous debut, though they opened the show with a ferocious and fun take of “Deathwish” from Smell the Magic and came back to the record to close the set with “Fast and Frightening” as the final encore. The encore also included “Pretend We’re Dead” and a cover of Agent Orange’s “Bloodstained” that they have been doing live for ages.

With the inclusion of drummer Demetra Plakas, L7 has the whole “classic” lineup intact. Touring for the past couple of years has made them not a novelty but a fierce, cohesive unit that seems like it stepped right out of the ‘90s without missing a beat. Which is great because let’s be honest: we need L7 more than ever before.

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