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Socio/Politico 101: Yer Girlfriend
Photos by Paul Moffett
Flashback: Uncle P's under the Mark Smalley regime. Hundreds of people crammed into a small club . . . hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, heat, smoke, a deadly serious crowd . . . they have come to see one band.
What a crowd! I haven't seen the place so packed since Richard Thompson played here. What is it with this Yer Girlfriend band?
This is the first time I've ever seen the band, and there is obviously something different going on here that is outside my experience. A tension in the air, something unique about this crowd. A feeling of groupness, a clique if you will. Through the haze, a single musical note is produced, held, and let go. A hush falls on the crowd . . . .
Flashforward: Friday night, July 8, at Tynker's (7th and Shipp). Once again, a huge crowd has arrived to watch these five women play music. Laura Shine (vocals, guitar), Carol Kraemer (guitar, vocals), Phyllis Free (drums), Liz Welsh (bass, vocals) and Cindy Campbell (keyboards) take to the stage with confidence. The music rolls out of the P.A. as if it were taped in some studio somewhere and the band is just lip-synching along. They are in their element, and obviously quite used to being the center of attention. But there is more than just the music. There is the politics to be considered.
Yer Girlfriend is a totally-out lesbian band. Their audience is primarily made up of the local LesBiGay community, and this is one of the reasons their shows share that undefined feeling of "belonging." For the women (and men) who attend these shows, it is a chance to be among those who deal with the same types of discrimination that hound any minority. And Yer Girlfriend's music certainly reflects this particular aspect of the LesBiGay way of life.
"I play music to empower myself and those like me. It is a political thing." So says Carol Kraemer, lead guitarist and by far the most political animal in the band. Carol's guitar work is flawless. Steady, straight-ahead playing with enough finger-lifts and happening notes to let the sweetness of the music ring true. An admitted acoustic junkie (she uses an Ovation with an internal pick-up on most songs), she just recently began playing electric guitar . . . but in no way does it show. Carol writes and collaborates with Laura Shine on many of the songs. Their formula? Simple: They are writing about the human condition, and how it relates to them.
Watching Carol play is an education in itself. Somewhere in the simple act of being vocal about a way of life that for many is taboo (or in the case of the religious right, downright sinful), Carol (and the rest of the band) brings an added dimension to the performance of music. I can only compare it in a way to the many bands that played music to protest the Vietnam war during the 1960s . . . whenever music (or art) is performed for a definite reason, whether it be political, philosophical, emotional -- whatever -- there is an added sense of legitimacy involved. There is an almost indescribable sense of meaning. There is more here than simple entertainment, and I'll have to admit I enjoyed it far more than your run-of-the-mill rock-and-roll show.
But hey, after all is said and done these women are musicians first, politicos second. No matter what they are trying to say with their lyrics, the music itself is universal.
They have a wide range. From lilting mixed harmonies with a dash of southwestern flavor (but not exactly Zydeco, if you know what I mean), to a Big Synth sound (courtesy Cindy's keyboards). These women are all over the place, stylistically speaking, but they handle it really well. However, I think they are more Beatlesque than not (sorry about that Beatlesque thingy; I know it sounds awfully rock-and-roll journalisty, but it is the only thing that fits) . . . there is a sensitivity inherent to Yer Girlfriend that (forgive me if I am stepping on toes) stems from the fact that they are talented, intelligent women under special circumstances. Me? I'm a pug-nosed, sexist breeder of the first rank, but geez, if only I could express myself as clearly and confidently, and as proudly, as Yer Girlfriend . . . then maybe I could make you understand . . . .
Pure, pure, pure! What is it that seems so pure about the music these women produce? It has to be more than the sexual issue. I don't know. I am denied from belonging to this special group by gender and orientation, but I was in no way made to feel uncomfortable. I found all the members of the band easily accessible. They certainly do not share the reverse prejudice one finds in many (dare I say it?) special interest groups, and come off as just regular people like you and me. Surprise? Not really. I've found from the beginning that it is much easier to judge people not by what they are, but who they are (if judgment is required at all), and the members of Yer Girlfriend obviously share the sentiment. I guess perhaps their circumstances have made them be less judgmental than most, although I've hardly found this to be the case with a lot of minorities. All this makes it devastatingly easy to enjoy their music, whether you are gay or straight. Bottom line: it's about the music, not who is playing it. 'Nuff said.
Take for instance Phyllis Free. She is flat-out cool. As a drummer, she leaves nothing to be desired. Keeps the beat, looks like she's having fun, rocks like a professional. I found her to be the least political of the group, and the easiest to talk to . . . she plays for the love of playing, and has been doing so since she was eight years old. Among her influences she lists Joe Morello and Dave Brubeck. Phyllis also does a lot more with drumming than just performance; she teaches, and is involved in several forms of drum therapy (one of those New Age things that I don't really understand but am sure has its value for many people). Phyllis has run the gamut, so to speak, as a working musician. Everything from college rock bands doing top 40 covers to Holiday Inn lounge bands doing easy-listening Muzak. Now she bangs the skins for Yer Girlfriend, and seems to be very happy doing so. She spoke glowingly of several women's festivals the band had played around the country, and was especially excited while relating the band's participation in the April '93 march on Washington for LesBiGay rights.
When discussing Yer Girlfriend's own brand of music, Phyllis mentioned with some disdain a style she called "[slang deleted]-rock," characterized by the obnoxious posturings of heavy-metal/pop songs that include lyrics about having sex with underage girls in cars and motel rooms. Who could not agree? I guess we are all lucky that this infantile style of music kinda went south back during the late '70s-early '80s. Still, the specter of ignorance looms heavily, even far into the now enlightened '90s. Perhaps bands like Yer Girlfriend can help to change all that.
Laura Shine sure can talk. One would think she was the mouthpiece for this band, and in many ways (being the lead vocalist) she is. In fact, Laura talks so good, she has her own radio-show (Woman Waves, Sundays at 3:00 p.m. on WFPL). However, in comparing her with the adamant political stance of Carol, Laura seems more of a fence-sitter, as far as the band's intentions go. Not so outspoken about the orientation angle, Shine would rather see the band judged more for their musical ability as opposed to some of the messages the music is attempting to convey. Not that she denies the issue, she just thinks maybe there is more to it than that. I definitely agree.
Last year, Yer Girlfriend was chosen as one of the bands to participate in the Original Highlands Neighborhood Association Fall Fest, and, according to the Association's president Bruce Duncan, several members of the committee were opposed to the band, based on their reputation. Evidently, the opposition were concerned that their "family festival" would in some way be overrun by militant homosexuals. Ridiculous? You bet, and just another example of the kind of humiliating prejudice that people are capable of. As it turned out, Yer Girlfriend turned in an excellent set (despite the foul weather conditions), cleverly devoid of their more political material, and demonstrated to the ignorant doom-sayers the definition of the phrase "Class Act."
Versatile? I'd say so. I think anyone who has the guts to attend a Yer Girlfriend performance would benefit greatly (from a moral/political standpoint), and see many of the myths that hound the lesbian community quietly, almost charmingly, put to death. Or maybe screamingly. Yer Girlfriend does perform several harder-edged songs. Shines vocals do just that: shine. She possesses a strong voice, maintains clear inflections, and could put many other vocalists to shame based on raw power alone. She has loads of talent, and displays a natural wit as well. During the obligatory Melissa Etheridge cover (which was requested by a member of the audience, to whom Laura jokingly replied, "You wanna hear Melissa Etheridge? Hey, it just so happens we've got her backstage!"), I was struck by the quality of musicianship that all the members of this band possess.
I was also unable to ignore the celebratory nature of the show . . . these women (both the band and the audience) were basking in the self-righteousness of just being themselves, without fear of reprisal, and I think maybe that is the secret to the power and passion that is Yer Girlfriend. The band provides the lesbian community with a spiritual outlet -- one that makes the inhabitants of the community feel good about being themselves.
Bass player Liz Welsh writes and sings, and sometimes switches off with Carol to play guitar. Her music provides a nice counterpoint, and goes a long way toward balancing out the whole "issue" thing. Perhaps sweet would be a good word to describe her vocal delivery, but definitely sweet without being cloying. I would say beautiful, but I think that word is over-rated. Perhaps beatific works better.
Anyway, Liz sings and instantly the crowd swarms to the stage front, couples pair off and begin to slow-dance. Based on her lyrics, and her delivery, I would have to say Liz is the romantic in this band, and hey, doesn't every band need one of those? If anything, Liz, a relative newcomer to the band, is Paul McCartney to Carol's John Lennon. Kinda ironic how she plays bass and everything, huh?
Liz also smiles a lot, and doesn't come off nearly as cerebral (read: heavy) as Laura or Carol, which, as I said, makes for a perfect balance. I didn't really get a chance to speak to her, so my observations are based entirely on the floor-to-stage perspective. Heck, I could be wrong, she might drown cats in her spare time, for all I know. But I really don't think so.
Cindy Campbell plays keyboards. From what I saw, she plays them mostly with her right hand. Of all the members of this band, based purely on physicality, I would have to say Cindy is the only one who truly looks like a musician. I think I would spot her as a rock-and-roller even if she were just walking down the street, carrying a bag of groceries. There is a swagger, a sensual cockiness to the way she moves that just screams rock and roll. I found her to be charming and indecently laid back, a kinda female Keith Richards. As far as her playing goes, well, she jams. Not the kind of heavy-handed organ-type music one expects from an electric piano, although she can wail on some big-time synth, then jump into some dirty blues piano when it is required.
The last Yer Girlfriend show I attended was at Connections, and I'll have to admit, impressive as the room happened to be, I was a little disappointed in the feeling I got just walking into the place. Compared to Tynker's, Connections has that big-time club feel to it that smacks more of commercialism than true emotion. I liked hanging out at Tynker's. There was more of a sincerity in its dedication to the lifestyle; at Connections all I smelled was money.
However, I could see where Yer Girlfriend would like this gig . . . the stage was huge, as was the room, which meant they could jam more of their crowd in. More crowd means more money, which was the whole point of this show: a benefit to raise money for their new album. Based on the amount of people I saw there, well, they must be well on their way to booking some studio time, that's for sure. This will be their third album -- the other two are available at ear X-tacy and Better Days, I am sure. If not, make 'em order it for you.
Yer Girlfriend will be appearing in Wyatt Hall at Bellarmine College on September 17 as a part of the Homefront Performances 10th anniversary celebration, which will be recorded for broadcast on WFPL 89.3. The air date was unavailable at press time.
Yer Girlfriend will also be participating in the Rhythm Fest Women's Festival of Music, Art and Culture in North Carolina sometime in September.
The one thing that impressed me the most about Yer Girlfriend (besides their musical ability) was when Carol told me the band receives lots of fan mail, from gays, the parents of gays, etc., praising the band for providing much-needed support with their music. "We've even got letters from people who said they were on the brink of suicide," she told me, "but then, just hearing one of our songs, well, it made them feel good enough about being who they are to push ahead, and not give up." Pretty strong stuff. But hey, isn't that what Girlfriends are for?