Pussy Riot at Washington D.C.’s Black Cat

IMG_5732Pussy Riot always seemed the last of the fearless punk bands, a group that would thrash for what it believed in and be willing to be jailed for it,  as they famously were in Russia’s capital in 2016 after a church performance.

By the time they made it to the U.S. capital Wednesday as part of its inaugural North American tour, the attitude, neon ski masks and political fervor were all still there. But they had long since given up guitars.

By now, Pussy Riot is animated by electrobeat dance music. In their succinct performance at the Black Cat, as a masked DJ kept the beats (and a crucial slide show) going from a laptop, one member chanted, sung or rapped to a dozen songs, accompanied at times by two flanking (and also ski-masked) colleagues.

Once, Pussy Riot declared they’d never be part of the Western style music business, preferring to throw surprise actions at unconventional sites like the one that got them rounded up by Putin in 2016. But here was a largely conventional setting with $30 tickets sold at the door — and a large crowd willing to pay it if only to provide support to their political and deeply feminist mission.

The set began with a 25-point manifesto, displayed on large the on the screen and read in a robotic voice (in English). Its declarations, from “82 % of all wealth generated in the past year went to the top 1 %” to “The super-rich enjoy undue influence,” was not exactly news to the Washington crowd, and it stood mostly and followed attentively along, rather than cheering as would occur at a rally.

Then the group’s charismatic leader Nadya Tolokonnikova (we presume; one may never know who is under those colorful balaclavas) began the first of her rapping chants — the words repeating on the screen behind her or translating on the few tracks in which she spoke her native Russian.

With a tone more exuberant than angry, they laid out their protests, often in shadows. The constant slide show was the constant illumination; as if to subsume its stardom in deference to the message, Pussy Riot was hardly lit at all.

Jail time often makes inmates converts to fervent prison and justice reform and a preponderance of of the early part of the performance dealt with police violence, in tracks like “Police State” and “Bad Apples” that were different from, say, “Cop Killer” in tone but not in message.

The other thing that stood out was how similar the oligarchies and complaints about them were between their homeland and the one they were visiting. The leaders of the superpowers, likely colluding, were not so different in approach, motivation by greed or detriment to country.

These depressing conclusions were offset by the bounce of their approach with tracks that encouraged chanting along and movement, as if beneath the agitation, change would likely come.

There was less than you would expect directly about Trump though it was pointed in “Make America Great Again.”

The opening artist, the Charlie XCX cohort Dorian Electra, donned the balaclava to become an honorary member toward the end of the short set.

By then the brutal political messages began to be replaced by surprising images that better matched the lighter pop/dance approach with Hello Kitty and her cohorts, and unicorns.

They closed with feminist concerns, about preferring imperfections, “I Love My Pimples,” or reminding everyone of the importance of women in “Straight Outta Vagina” that advised, “Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb, vagina’s where you’re really from.”IMG_5739

 

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