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Let's Hear it For the Girls

Members of Cross Stich, The Mallwalkers, Hot Tip, Utah Jazz, and Victoria's Secretions (photo by Tom Etu)

Vaggie Fest celebrates ladies’ hardcore punk scene

Picture it—Buffalo, 1996. While the hardcore and punk scene thrived, most of our modern day punksters were rocking Osh Kosh and Jellies. Past, present and future, this city offers a niche to all its children. Even in a scene dominated by masculinity, our girls are leading a new normal.

The fifth (or is it the sixth?) annual Vaggie Fest, celebrating vaginas of all shapes and sizes involved in music, is in the making as you read. The event is focused on ladies and is planned for August 7th and 8th at Broadway Joes and August 9th at Sugar City (1239 Niagara St.); two venues cut out for two different purposes. Sugar City caters to an all-ages community, encouraging DIY projects, cultural and artistic exhibits in their alternative-minded space. This being said, Main Street’s Broadway Joe’s is a bar that sees many a rowdy drunkard at their weekly Punk n’ Tots, which is essentially punk rock and free tots with a beer on Thursdays.

I got together with six young ladies heavily involved in today’s hardcore/punk community: Britt Wagner, Chelsea Merlo, Jessika Marvin, Keely Guiliano, Irene Rekhviashvili and Selena Raszewski. There are boatloads of others involved, but let’s be real here: only a fraction of the scene can fit into my living room. Wagner is the creator of Vaggie Fest and seasoned musician; Guiliano is a booker/promoter and this year’s second in command; Merlo is an experienced musician; Marvin is a long-standing singer and beginner musician; Rekhviashvili is another rookie musician; and Raszewski is a novice booker/promoter. Together, these women describe the scene that adopted them with warmth and acceptance.

The purpose of Vaggie Fest is pretty straight forward, but its roots are an extension of another festival that Wagner had always admired. The father of the festival was Veggie Fest, a punk/hardcore/vegetarian/vegan potluck festival in the early 2000s created by Nick Baran, a local straight edge record label owner and musician. As Wagner explains, the festival was essentially some dudes who decided they were “gonna make the best food ever” and have local and touring bands play at Ellicott Creek Park in Tonawanda. And it happened. For several years, bands long and short-running filled the bill and made an impact on a lot of what Buffalo can see as the insurgence of “young punks.”

To Wagner, as one of these “young punks,” Veggie Fest was “where it was at.” Watching these bands as her musical world was opening up inspired the spin off, Vaggie Fest. Hot spots for kids in the punk and hardcore scene at the time were Xtreme Wheels, Voelker’s Bowling Alley and Al’s Billiards. The latter being Wagner’s first go at booking and promoting. She reminisces goofily of her 15-year-old self, booking at Al’s. “I ruled that place. Shows happened there way before, but there was a whole floor hockey rink upstairs. Every weekend at Oliver and Shank, probably a hundred people came out.”

When Baran moved to another city and Veggie Fest fizzled out, Wagner felt inspired to set her festival in the same location—Ellicott Creek Park. Not many women were involved in the early years of the festival. It was mostly local bands with whom she was familiarized. There were plenty of “boys” who didn’t play much into the theme, but it got the ball rolling.

Merlo was one half of the vaginal pull in hardcore punk quartet Human Touch and the solitary pull in gonzo-punk bit Coworkers (both retired acts but you can hear their music on Bandcamp). She remembers fondly playing the first fest. At least one of her bands has played every year. She’ll be playing with her band, the Mallwalkers this year.

Marvin coins herself as the “inter-city promoter,” finding herself living in between Syracuse and Buffalo, torn between the two scenes. She’s been in noise and hardcore bands like Assinine and Inerds of Buffalo and SoreXcuse of Syracuse. There’re heaps more of fun-named bands this girl has been in since the late 1990s. She normally plays every festival but this year her band dipped out last minute.

What does it take to be a woman in the punk community? Obviously, there’s no cut and dry answer, but for these ladies it seems to boil down to a cultivation of musical interests, personal attitude, and time and place. Marvin, Merlo, and Wagner remember the days when there were few females in the scene and can attest to the explosion of female interest in music lately, whether you know what the hell you’re doing or not.

To start, Marvin explains, “Buffalo especially has always had an eclectic music scene and a well-earned reputation for a strong hardcore and punk scene. That’s why I initially moved here. I was a part of this ever-changing and growing scene in the late 1990s.” She felt alienated when no one else her age listened to the same music she did. She started with the alto saxophone in jazz band, and then sold it to move to Buffalo to attend college where she ended up screaming in punk bands.

Merlo was always in band as a student and was supported by her parents in the form of instruments as gifts. When she wanted to pick up bass, she asked her parents and they gave her a decent dose of reality. “So the deal was that I had to work for my Dad to earn this bass. My dad does construction, so it was my job to handwrite carbon copy contracts for his customers and I would get two dollars for every contract and it took me like an hour to do it. But [once I earned it] I felt more independent and could manage for myself.”

In past years, Merlo has traveled with good friend and frontwoman Sheena Ozzella of Lemuria, a band that has brought a lot of attention to Buffalo. Having roadied in many countries and experienced diverse scenes, one thing became very evident about Buffalo. “It’s a great place to be, because nobody cares that you’re a girl. They barely recognize that you’re a female...in a good way.”

And where many females may not see music (of any genre) as an approachable field, Merlo witnessed plenty of women eager to be involved, showing interest in unsuspecting places, whether it be kicking it in bands, attending shows, promoting, or helping in any way possible. To see more and more of her community showing active involvement is exciting for her.

“Don’t get me wrong, but there’s always going to be that one person that’s like, ‘You have pretty good rhythm...for a girl.’ You never have the opportunity to choose who you play music for and how they’re going to react to it, but you can always pick who you play music with. And for me, I’ve been so lucky that everyone I’ve played music with has always backed me up.”

When Wagner was young she had a friend who showed her “a buncha cool real bands.” That was all it took. “My first instrument was a mini Squire, a baby one. And my friend would teach me songs over the phone on the guitar. We’d call each other, and say ‘I can’t sleep, what’re you doing?’ She’d be like, ‘Learn this Nirvana song.’ In our first band [The Klix] we covered Bikini Kill. I [also] had a [crappy] bass that I traded to someone for their [crappy] drum set, and it’s still the drum set I have now. I pimped it out. It took me seven years to get my own. I just used everyone else’s stuff.”

Fortunately, all of these girls felt the reassuring push to be involved and this fortune doesn’t stop with early beginners. Irene began as an audience member in college. Now she’s a new face on the stage and has felt sincerely welcomed since she started playing. She’s borrowed many a friend’s instrument, starting with the drums. This started about three years ago and since then she has picked up bass and guitar. When she announces she’s in three projects and Marvin slides in a sarcastic, “Oh, is that it?” Irene shrinks theatrically.

“Oh that’s it, for now. In Hot Tip I play drums. In Alpha Hopper, I sing. In dildoN’T I play guitar or bass, depending on what is available.” As a newbie, she credits her involvement to a “supportive community that will give me shows. [They] listen to you and cheer you on, no matter what. It’s really positive.”

Raszewski, younger than every interviewee by at least four years, relates saying, “[I started] same as [Irene], as an audience member. I was young, going to Buff State. I started going to [local shows] and I thought ‘this is pretty cool!’ [Later,] I was bullied into setting up shows and realized that I kind of like organizing shows. I try to be the best I can at it. When I saw how much fun everyone was having, and when I was able to get out of town bands that showed their gratitude— that kept me going.”

There’s definitely a connection between attending local shows and becoming involved in the orchestration of the shows. Guiliano, originally from the New York City area, organizes Punk N’ Tots at Broadway Joe’s. “I just kinda fell into going to shows [in high school]. I think the first show I went to was a bowling alley show on Long Island. My friend had an older brother who told us about it. It was 10 minutes from my house, so we went. It was a really crummy hardcore show.” After moving to Buffalo, she joined the all-girl punk band Cross Stitch and then learned to play guitar, something not that uncommon: “band first, instruments later,” Rekhviashvili teases.

Guiliano continues, “I’ve been playing for about a year—I was [messing] around a couple of months before that. But my boyfriend got me a guitar, then I bought a head and that’s all the gear I had for about a year. Then Hot Tip formed and I was borrowing my boyfriend’s bass and whatever gear I could find, and I was talking to a customer of mine at Broadway Joe’s about how I needed a small bass, because the one I was borrowing was too big. So this customer gave me an old beater bass he had lying around. I just bought a bass head and cab with wheels, so I’m a real person now.” Guiliano’s story highlights what makes Buffalo’s music scene so enjoyable—accessibility. There are so many musicians (many inexperienced) who are welcomed to try their damndest by a community that makes these shows possible.

Rewind to Vaggie Fest. Why “vaggie?” Well, first off, it kind of sounds like “veggie”, second: vaginas are involved. They just are. And thirdly: “Ladyfest”, “Girl Fest” and “Grrrl Fest” were taken. Though there are many articles about the “autonomy” of these festivals and how any city can have a take on it, Wagner and Guiliano ran into some issues. “When you ask bands to play at Vaggiefest, they’re like, ‘what are you talking about?’ Then if you ask them to play Ladyfest, they ask, ‘what are the politics of your fest?’ Either way, you have to explain what it...is. There are zero politics. Just come and shred.”

Being turned off by the hyper-feminism of some of these festivals focused on women, everyone agreed on Wagner’s new term “nu-wave feminism.” Merlo says, “I think the goal was to be inclusive, but in some ways, it ended up being totally exclusive.”

“Men are people, women are people—we’re all people...or anything else in between,” says Rekhviashvili.

Vaggie festivities are open to anyone and everyone who just wants to see a bunch of ladies (and dudies!) rock out. There will be tables for Vaggie tapes and T-shirts, Black Dots Records, Spiral Scratch Records, Drug Party Tapes, Annie’s Coffee and Donuts, and every procreating citizen’s concern, Planned Parenthood. There will also be food for Saturday’s show at Sugar City (1239 Niagara St.) and you may bring a dish if you wish. There are $20/3-day passes available online and at Spiral Scratch (Bryant and Elmwood) and Black Dots (Lafayette and Grant). Otherwise, entry is $7 for Thursday and $10 for either Friday or Saturday.

In Wagner’s words, “[Women] rule. Come hang out. Rip it up.”

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