Still pretty, but pretty jarring, she stretched her red-stockinged legs and stomped her red kitten heels in time with the music and beyond.
Firebird, St. Louis
Boy, is my finger is not on the pulse. “Is that all for will call?” I asked the doorman, looking at the scant one-page-and-two-lines of names waiting to be checked in. Le Butcherettes is an exceptional act, not without notoriety, critical acclaim, or pedigree.
Vocalist/lyricist/guitarist/keyboardist Teri Gender Bender has lent her talents to a number of acts, including Bosnian Rainbows, where she shares a stage with Le Butcherettes producer Omar Rodríguez-López, of Mars Volta fame. They have released two albums on Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records. They opened for Melvins on their last trip St. Louis: “I daresay they upstaged them!” a friend tells me. Their latest release, A Raw Youth, features Iggy Pop (en Español!) on “La Uva,” and Henry Rollins contributed spoken word on their second album, Cry is for the Flies.
I had snatched up tickets months early and arrived at door’s open in anticipation of the droves of fans that would obviously be lining around the building. Now I wondered how all these tributaries did not lead a larger stream of fans to share my panic for tickets and floorspace. But judging by the healthy-sized and terribly enthusiastic crowd that finally amassed for Le Butcherettes, as well as the momentum around their steady production of high-grade, avant-garde, synth-polka garage punk, I anticipate this will be the last time you see Teri Gender Bender & Co. perform in a venue this size.
“The Leibniz Language,” from their first album, Sin Sin Sin, was a real treat and surprising selection to open the set. Staccato shouts of “BRUNO WAS A CLASSIC!” punctuated the delirious opener, effectively setting the tone for the ecstatic performance to follow: heaving shoulders shuddering at the keys, though holding a guitar; barking and commanding oration, at the mic though off-mic: Is this part of the song? Is it supposed to sound like this? Is her mic not working? Did something break? Make no mistake: This is all according to the unsettling plan of her performance art/music. Things are not what they seem, and this diminutive creature, dolled up in tulle and a heavy coat of lipstick, was poised to take the idiom to the extreme.
Often compared to PJ Harvey in prowess, aesthetics, and volume, dolled up turns into doll parts turns into marionettes as Gender Bender’s arms, legs, and head seem to operate as independent actors, striking odd angles, bending and swinging as of their own accord, sometimes with the music, sometimes despite it. As she wails in “Burn the Scab”: “I find it hard to articulate, I find it hard to pronounce these words.” To bring the drama words alone cannot convey, she frames the syllables with added exaggeration of Jim Henson’s yip-yip Martians, Technicolor lipstick on an alien mouth, stretched far and wide for emphasis.
Like St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, Teri Gender Bender brings the theatrical to her music, heaving her guitar around the stage as both an instrument and a prop, as if she wants some extra heft on her otherwise delicate frame. But where Clark adds expression via careful choreography, Gender Bender’s “dance” moves are more impulsive and disarranged: sweaty bangs clinging to her face, head twitching like a manual Jacob’s Ladder special effects, and the occasional pelvis thrusting and banging, recalling Diamond Dallas Page’s signature “suck it” move or roller derby lead calling an end to a successfully gratifying jam.
The hyperbole, metaphor, and absurdity woven throughout her songs were translated from lyrical to visual as she stomped, swished, and skittered across the stage in a bundle of crimson textures, with the arterial red curtains playing the role of green screen backdrop to set off the moving parts. The tulle haphazardly wound around arms and waist, secured with a heavyweight champion–sized belt, gradually gave up on containing the frenetic energy, leaving one exposed arm to swing nakedly: “She was totally fighting that sleeve!”
Thankfully, this interpretation emphasized the hair, mouth, eyes, and teeth of her imagery, only hinting at the grislier and more visceral symbolism—scabs, demons, animal dirt, blackheads, and bloody backs—shared with Cedric Bixler-Zavala and her compadres in Mars Volta. Still pretty, but pretty jarring, she stretched her red-stockinged legs and stomped her red kitten heels in time with the music and beyond, crab walking, spider creeping, inventing new alien walks as she scuttled side-to-side on the outer edges of her feet.
If, with concerted effort, you managed to peel your eyes off the ball of fire that is Teri Gender Bender, you would notice the continuity among the rest of the exceptionally talented band: bassist Riko Rodríguez-López, marked by patent red shoes and a low, fuzzy bun; Chris Common’s drumsticks smashing and flying nimbly across the back of the stage (literally airborne, to be replaced from the stockpile as quickly as they were lost). Newer tracks like “Witchless C Spot” found Rodríguez-López doubling on preprogrammed keys, and though the set list sampled evenhandedly across their three albums, there was a slight lean toward the glitch-synth accents in their latest, A Raw Youth. While some personal favorites didn’t make the cut—no “Poet from Nowhere” or “Cry Is for the Flies” or “The Gold Chair Ate the Fireman”—truth is, their catalog is so chock full of gems it’s just a question of how to slice it.
The absurd cherry on top came near the end of the show, when what began as an oration on a little old lady selling vegetables, which my rusty Spanish skills struggled to process (“en mi pueblito hay una viejita que vende verduras”…in approximation), until the opening melody and switch to English furthered the confusion. Just as I turned to inform my husband—“You know this is Miley, right?”—other similarly puzzled and delighted faces throughout the crowd turned to inform their companions, “This is ‘Wrecking Ball’!?” (I maintain that my knowledge of this song is due primarily Sinéad O’Connor’s feminist open-letter to Cyrus on shortchanging her talents by swinging around naked, aka, giving it up to a cannibalistic industry on the first date and paving the way for a shock-value career lacking substance.)
Is it too much a stretch to imagine Gender Bender was referencing the same discourse? She had already covered similar ground in “They Fuck You Over” and “Stab My Back.” Or was it an absurd “and now for something completely different” move, a quick jerk out of the bilingual gravity and literary references of the evening, into pop-princess tabloid fodder? Or maybe she is really just a big Miley fan? The number closed with Gender Bender’s declaration, “Fucking Miley Cyrus!!” leaving the selection, sentiment, imagery, and motivation, like so much of evening, open to interpretation. | Courtney Dowdall