There is a hazy, dreamlike quality to Palm Springs, California, a 1950s time capsule of a resort town that was once the stomping grounds of Hollywood stars like Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Elvis Presley, Liberace, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
The city has been preserved so carefully that even the Jack in the Box’s fast-food burgers are flipped within the confines of beautiful mid-century modern architecture, and even the local radio station keeps the crooning going 24/7 with mood-setting hits by the Platters, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald.
So it was in this gauzy space, untethered by time and locality and winding through desert mountain roads as Frank Sinatra belted out “I did it myyyyyy wayyyyyyy” through the rental car speakers, that I set out to meet up with Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, and Maureen Herman as they prepared to play their first official show in 14 years and first show as that particular threesome since 1996.
As with the ongoing Replacements reunion that began at a dusty festival in Toronto in the fall of 2013, if there’s one truth about the Babes in Toyland reunion that rings out above all others, it’s that they’re doing it their way—complete with a warm-up show in an old-timey saloon tucked off one of the winding roads that lead up to the San Bernadino Mountains.
As soon as I step out of the car I can hear Kat Bjelland screaming. The band is tearing through a soundcheck rendition of “Bruise Violet” that’s rattling the glass on the windows that face the parking lot, and as soon as they finish I can hear Lori Barbero’s big, booming laugh from all the way outside.
The anonymous appeal of such a quaint little hidden venue is immediately apparent. Before doors open to the public, a server approaches Kat and asks if she’s there to see Babes in Toyland. Kat just nods her head quietly, watching to see how the situation is going to play out.
“They’re old school,” the server says.
“Yeah,” Kat replies, smirking.
“I like them,” the server continues, clueless.
“I like them too,” Kat agrees. When she floats back to the table to join her bandmates for dinner, she has a devilish grin on her face.
The little venue, which has a maximum capacity of 244 people, is so laid-back that it doesn’t even have a greenroom, so Kat spends most of her time lurking on the patio before the show while Lori greets everyone with big smiles and hugs and Maureen kicks back in the corner with a table of friends, cooly drinking it all in. Within a couple of hours the place is packed, and the lingering smell of barbecued beef brisket mingles in the hot desert air with sweat and anticipation.
The crowd is dressed in desert hipster wear, a sea of ponchos and plaid and floppy Marianne Faithful hats, and the room buzzes with the kind of excitement that only comes when a whole room full of people had to make some kind of trek to end up in a place together. For a moment it almost feels too casual—an event this momentous should feature some kind of rolled-out red carpet instead of a bar full of lost desert wanderers, shouldn’t it? But as soon as the trio make their way to the stage to begin their set every person lifts their phone in the air to document the occasion. It may have been casual, but there wasn’t a single person in the sold-out crowd who didn’t feel damn lucky to be there.
After a brief test of the sound equipment, the band is ready. Barbero leans into her microphone and laughs her big beautiful Lori Barbero laugh, and as Bjelland’s guitar swells to an unholy roar she says, “The desert is magical. We love you.”
“Jungle Train” bursts out of the gate in all its swampy, guttural glory, and Bjelland opens her mouth as wide as it will go to let out the first of many unholy wails. And oh, how wonderful it is to hear that voice again: so raw, so immediate, so in the moment and heated and feral. After the song finished the entire band just stands there, seemingly stunned by the power they’d just unleashed, and Bjelland lets out the tiniest and cutest little giggle while Barbero shakes her head and simply said, “F***. Yeah.”
They push full-steam ahead into another crowd favorite, “He’s My Thing,” and barely let up until about four songs in when Bjelland looks out into the crowd to ask, “Does it sound ok?” The room roars its approval.
With the stage hovering just a few inches off the ground, the view for most people is of flailing limbs and flying hair, but every so often you can catch glimpses of Barbero’s radiant grin, Herman’s rocking, anchored stance, and Bjelland’s maniacal, wide-eyed stares. The band has been rehearsing privately for months now, and they move together like a single unit, ratcheting forward like a well-oiled gear and pummeling the crowd with wave after wave of grimy cacophony.
The crowd is clearly familiar with every song, from “Spit to See the Shine” to “Bruise Violet” and “Swamp Pussy,” and the music comes so fast and furious that the 50-minute, 13-song set feels like it whips past in an instant. But with one final blast through “Sweet ’69” the band is done, and the rest of us are left dazed.
With the big wide open Joshua Tree sky revealing every constellation visible to the human eye, a line of eager fans stretches out the bar’s front door and into the parking lot to buy t-shirts, get their posters autographed, and collect one more hug from Barbero before the night is through. Driving back down to Palm Springs, I listen as the static of the mountain roads gives way to the sweet sounds of crooners on the radio again, and as I wind back down the mountain I can’t help but roll down the window of my car and let a big laugh and scream out into the dark desert night.
A full interview with Babes in Toyland is forthcoming. The band plays a sold-out show at the Roxy in Los Angeles Thursday night and several European gigs in May, with additional tour dates yet to be announced.
Babes in Toyland set list:
He’s My Thing
Spit to See the Shine
Handsome & Gretel