As The Julie Ruin file on stage and begin a long, droney intro while tuning their instruments, the sense of anticipation builds. Where is she? What song is this all leading up to? Where is she?! And then she appears – dressed in big black knickers, a sequinned top and tap shoes, her hair piled on top of her head – flying into her trademark on-the-spot dance, her arms flailing around, her ferocious voice hurtling across the Electric Ballroom. There she is.
Tonight’s been a long time coming; the show was originally scheduled for May 2014 – a London stop off on the band’s European tour in support of the then relatively new album, Run Fast. It was to be Kathleen Hanna’s first UK performance since she was last over this way with Le Tigre, nine years ago. Her long term nemesis, Lymes disease, put a stop to all this though, her illness making a devastating comeback and requiring an urgent course of treatment.
Given the circumstances, she’d be forgiven for being a little off par, but the woman onstage tonight is every bit as passionate as the one who became the face of riot grrrl, as lead singer in Bikini Kill, over 20 years ago. It’s not just her blood curdling, honey coated vocal – which spits out the exuberant punk attack of Ha Ha Ha and the biting sadness of Goodbye Goodnight with equal waves of angst – she juggles weighty topics with the ease of someone who’s well used to discussing abortion, rape and misogyny on demand. A remark about Ireland voting to legalise same sex marriage leads on to a discussion about the ordeal a 15-year-old Hanna was put through in order to get an abortion. “I thought we legalised abortion about a thousand trillion years ago,” she sighs, before adding, with a despairing laugh: “They made me write an essay about why I should be allowed one. I’d love to get my hands on that…”
Perhaps surprisingly, given their limited back catalogue, the band steers clear of any of Hanna’s most infamous work (her Bikini Kill bandmate, Kathi Wilcox, is a member of The Julie Ruin too) and she’s clearly slightly uncomfortable with the mantle she’s been placed upon: “There are as many different types of feminism as there are types of people. I can’t speak for everyone. I just speak for myself…I just want to be in a fucking awesome band…” – somewhat ironically this, of course, elicits yelps of support. It makes the standout line of Goodbye Goodnight (“What happens when you’re not 20 but 41, and you have to sink into the you you’ve now become”) all the more poignant.
While Hanna is undeniably the star of the show, keyboardist Kenny Mellman is a comfortable wingman, with twinkling, cabaret keys and Fred Schneider-style backing vocals. It’s Mellman who provides the glue that both bonds and polishes The Julie Ruin; they’re a playful band who experiment with sounds, be it a loose tango or looping surf guitars, even when dipping into Hanna’s lo-fi DIY solo album which gave the band its name – and while she still sounds combative, her voice sparkles with mischief and fun too. They’re celebratory, waving a flag for outsiders.
They close with a one song encore – their album’s title track, Run Fast – a bittersweet anthem which does a good job of summing up the band. It’s urgent and angry but hopeful and fearless too – Hanna has never sounded so good. Despite her protests, she is a feminist icon, and tonight she again proved that she’s still a worthy punk icon too.