Local Current Blog

Behind First Avenue’s Stars: Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland

The wall of stars: First Avenue’s massive monument to notable past performers is a landmark in its own right. As the venue prepares to celebrate its 45th anniversary next year, we’re setting out to tell the stories of the artists whose names decorate the side of Minneapolis’s iconic rock venue. First up are the punk-rocking triple threat Babes in Toyland.

Minneapolis maidens Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, and Michelle Leon united in 1987 to create what became one of the most revered female rock bands of all time. Lead vocalist and guitarist Bjelland and drummer Barbero remained throughout the entirety of the band’s career, while Maureen Herman replaced Leon as bass player in 1991. The group also had stints with Cindy Russell, Chris Holetz, and Jessie Farmer; even Courtney Love briefly practiced with the band before her days with Hole.

They released three full-length records over the years: Spanking Machine (1990), Fontanelle (1992), and Nemesisters (1995). Fontanelle skyrocketed them to mainstream stardom, selling 220,000 copies in the US alone and paving the way to Lollapalooza in 1993. The band called it quits in 1997 until releasing a recording of their reunion show, Minneapolism (Live for the Last Time), in 2001.

Despite a heavy amount of national touring, they tallied a total of 33 performances between First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry. Barbero recalls that their first gig at the Entry was with Dinosaur—before they were called Dinosaur Jr.—in 1988. Aside from headlining many sold-out shows, they also opened for the likes of Sonic Youth (Oct. 22, 1990) and My Bloody Valentine (Feb. 12, 1992). Their backstage rider contracts regularly included hot vegetarian meals for each of the members, a generous supply of orange and cranberry juices, and a case of Heineken. To their fans’ dismay, the local legends played their final First Avenue show on Nov. 25, 2000.

Barbero’s fond First Ave memories are legion—including stage-diving during a Nirvana show and winning money at disco dance competitions in high school. Most vividly, she recalls the jitters before Babes’ first show in the Entry. “I was doing sound check and in the monitor and I hear, ‘Okay, kick drum,’” she remembers. “I knew what that was because it’s obviously the one you kick with your foot. ‘Okay, hit the snare.’ And I just sit there looking at him and I’m just shaking. And he goes, ‘Hit the snare—can you hear me?’ And I go ‘Yeah…’ Then I sat down really quietly into the microphone and whisper, ‘Which one is the snare?’ And everyone just starts laughing. I just wanted to die.”

While performing at Lollapalooza, Barbero became close friends with Adam Jones of Tool, contributing to another one of her all-time favorite First Avenue stories. “Somewhere along the tour I had mentioned that I’d never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Ever. Like, jelly is a fruit and just doesn’t belong in my peanut butter sandwich,” she explains. “Long story short, when we played at First Avenue, we were in a sold-out show, I’m sitting behind my drum kit I can’t remember who delivered it, maybe Steve McClellan or Conrad. They’re like, ‘You have a special delivery.’ And I’m like, ‘Uhhh, what?’ This was in front of everyone. I opened up this FedEx package and it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich [from Adam Jones]. He had sent it to First Avenue to have it delivered in the middle of the show. I took one bite of it and then threw it out into the audience.”

Beth Wakefield became friends with Barbero years before the band’s inception while a part of the punk scene at the (now closed) Longhorn Bar. According to Wakefield, seeing Babes in Toyland in the Mainroom was incomparable. “You know how the screen goes up and you’re waiting for the show to begin?” Wakefield recounts. “I just remember the excitement building. And when the screen went up, there’s Kat and the lights and instantly full-blown volume and energy—the whole place just exploded. It was an instantaneous explosion of sound and girls and power. I’ll never forget every time they’d come on stage. But there’s something about that screen going up at First Avenue.”

Wakefield believes Babes in Toyland made their mark on the venue’s history not only through stellar shows, but also their progressiveness and deep roots in the community. “I think that hometown appreciation of having Minneapolis women be on that stage and be so powerful and so raw and so engaging just made their show that much stronger.”

Brent Weigelt spent a portion of his youth renting an apartment in Barbero’s house in Uptown, a famed gathering for touring bands. Needless to say, he attended his fair share of Babes in Toyland performances at First Avenue. Weigelt even opened for them at the Entry on the Fourth of July in 1992 when he briefly played guitar for Monster Zero. “It was, like, a girl in a full-style dress and cowboy boots, Lori with dreadlocks, and Kat in a weird dress just rocking out,” he depicts of their unforgettable first impressions.

Barbero is currently based in Austin where she owns her own record label and manages the famous honky-tonk The White Horse. She’s eagerly bringing a few of their artists to a showcase here at the Entry in July. “I’m over the moon about it because it’s my home,” Barbero explains. “My eyes are starting to well up just talking about it—it really means a lot to me. Minneapolis would not be the same if First Avenue had never existed. It’s the pulse, or the aorta. I’ll call First Avenue the aorta of Minneapolis. It goes straight to the heart.”

Babes in Toyland at First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry

05/10/1988: J.A.M.M.I. Awards: Babylon Pink/Black Spot/Blind Approach/Babes in Toyland/Test Monkey

05/23/1988: Soul Asylum / Agitpop / Babes in Toyland

07/21/1988: Babes in Toyland / Bedspring Reptiles / Bermuda Onion (Entry)

10/13/1988: Sham 69 / Babes in Toyland / Toadstools

06/30/1989: Babes in Toyland / Bermuda Onion / Jason’s Gay Haircut (Entry)

08/12/1989: Babes in Toyland / Candy Anger / Boomerang (Entry)

10/11/1989: Babes in Toyland / Bone Club / Dead Tired (Entry)

03/23/1990: Bullet Lavolta / Babes in Toyland / Charlie Don’t Surf (Entry)

06/09/1990-06/10/1990: Babes in Toyland / Jonestown/Liberace’s Bathtub / Charlie Don’t Surf / Monster Zero (Entry)

09/04/1990: Club 241 featuring Babes in Toyland (mainroom) and the New Band showcase (Entry) featuring atomic Vibe / Strangers / The Throwaways / The Wad

10/22/1990: Sonic Youth / Cows / Babes in Toyland

11/17/1990: Babes in Toyland / Monster Zero / Dutch Oven (Entry)

01/11/1991-01/12/1991: Babes in Toyland / Trenchmouth / Milk / Technique Nique (Entry)

01/20/1991: Soul Asylum / Babes in Toyland / The Jayhawks

03/10/1991: Babes in Toyland / Jonestown / Mother’s Day (Entry)

10/07/1991: Babes in Toyland / Arcwelder / Superball ’63

02/12/1992: Dinosaur Jr. / My Bloody Valentine / Babes in Toyland

07/04/1992: Babes in Toyland / Lubricated Goat / Monster Zero (Entry)

11/24/1992: Babes in Toyland / Dumpster Juice / Saucer

05/06/1994: Babes in Toyland / Mount Shasta / Oaks of Righteousness (Entry)

05/29/1994: Babes in Toyland / Billy Goat / Milk / Today is the Day (Entry)

12/22/1994: Babes in Toyland / ARM / The Pacers

07/31/1995-08/01/1995: Babes in Toyland / Guzzard / Stepchild / Oaks of Righteousness / Interstate Judy

12/23/1995: Babes in Toyland / Season to Risk / Mount Shasta

03/28/1996: Babes in Toyland / Pull Surkle & Casino Royale / King Can / Apollo Kings

07/12/1996: Minnesota Music Academy Tough Guy Showcase with Babes in Toyland / Likehell / King Can / Cooper

09/15/1996.Babes in Toyland / Emma Peel / Wrong (Entry)

12/19/1996: Babes in Toyland / Better Off Airport

04/14/1997: Babes in Toyland / Space Bike

11/25/2000: Babes in Toyland / Melt Banana / The Crush

More on Babes in Toyland

Kat Bjelland on Babes in Toyland and her long and winding career (Andrea Swensson, 3/10/2013)

Women’s History Month: Minnesota music memories (Jay Gabler, 3/3/2014)

Jessica Hopper on Minnesota, local scenes, and music journalism in the Rookie era (Jay Gabler, 4/16/2014)

  • This is a great piece and I am so glad to see it–thank you. One important correction please: Courtney Love was never in the band Babes in Toyland. Not for a minute. I saw their very first show. I was there for the brief time Courtney lived in Minneapolis. I drove her to the airport when she left. I think it’s really important that this be corrected in a story about the band being a Minneapolis legacy. It’s not a minor correction. It’s a lie that’s been perpetuated for decades for a specific reason that partially robbed my friend of her artistic identity. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Maureen. I’ve added the phrase “practiced with” to clarify the nature of Courtney Love’s brief involvement with Babes in Toyland.