I’ve tried to listen to the putative renaissance of protest music in the Tr**p-era, but the songs I’ve heard have generally been a sorry lot, too specific and straining for relevancy, the playlists feeling like musical versions of cable news roundtables, only instead of argument there was a bothersome one-upmanship, each song trying to outdo the others in angry sincerity. It’s quite possible that in today’s balkanized, echo-chambered, epistemological bubble the kind of rousing call-to-the-barricades anthem that once characterized protest songs is a relic of the past. But last night at Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge, a double-bill of New Orleans’ Hurray For The Riff Raff and local newcomers Kera & the Lesbians showed a new way forward. Taking a page from the 70s slogan “the personal is political,” the frontwomen of both bands respond to the current administration’s anti-woman and immigrant policies by turning to their own stories, taking as their subject how to become their most authentic self.
For Hurray For The Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, the path has been anything but direct. From the Bronx to the Lower East Side, to busking her way across the country, and finally to New Orleans, she has distilled her experience into her wonderful new album The Navigator (ATO). Dressed in high-waisted pants, her hair topped by a beret, she looked like the girls I used to see riding uptown on the 6 train when I lived on E. 93rd Street; she performed with a feral energy and conviction that reminded me of Patti Smith. Her songs are steeped in American and Latin roots, with echoes of Springsteen, Doc Pomus and Mink DeVille, but subvert their sources: “The Body Electric” is a murder ballad told from the point of view of the victim, “Settle” is a torch song pining for respect instead of love. And in “Fourteen Floors,” with Segarra at the piano playing the song’s simple figure, it’s hard not to hear the line “when I woke up, it was all gone, they took you when I was asleep” and not think of the families torn apart by Il Douché’s immigration raids.
She’s assembled a fine band for the tour. Guitarist Jordan Hyde isn’t flashy, but searching solos perfectly serve the songs; drummer Charlie Ferguson has that NOLA knack of playing with a propulsive ease, and bassist Caitlyn Gray, a cool Hitchcock blonde, locks in with her bass, and keyboardist Sarah Goldstone adds swirling, Garth Hudson styled fills.
As on the album, the show reached its climax with ” Pa’lante,” an emphatic bilingual epic demanding that no matter what one does, “be something.” The encore, a slowed down take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” brings the song’s class resentments of the privileges of the 1% to the forefront; there’s no missing who the son is in this scenario.
Kera & the Lesbians also impressed. Kera Armendariz cuts a stunning,charismatic figure on stage. Her vocals, which ranged from an slurred whisper to a clairion call, have an intimacy and directness that demands your attention. they were a mixed a little too low to really catch the lyrics, but there was no denying her determination. The songs look toward the dramatic, overwrought drama of Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison (a cover the the latter’s “Crying” was stunning) but with unexpected touches—a percussionist in addition to their drummer gives their sound an unexpected soulfulness, while the harpist who joined them for a few songs bought a heavenly quality. What impressed most was the way their setwas structured—spacious and slinky to start, a but like the early Talking Heads, turning denser and more urgent, the final two songs breaking on a wave of tenderness. This is a band to keep an eye on; they’ve smart and have talent to spare. Armendariz told the appreciative crowd her aim is “to create a safe space for all of us to exist.” With any luck, that space will keep expanding.