Babes in Toyland thrash, stumble through classics at First Ave

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Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland shreds Saturday at First Ave.

Maybe it's too much to expect sentimentality from the band that wrote "Vomit Heart."

Babes in Toyland already had their homecoming at 2015's Rock the Garden, and by all accounts, it was a triumphant return. Despite the fact that it was in a odd setting for trio of grunge-punk pioneers, they overpowered the rust, shed a few tears, and vanquished anyone who doubted they could still pull it off.

Saturday night's return was a homecoming of a different sort, though. By returning to the storied rock club where their career began, Babes in Toyland felt truly home for the first time since they reformed in 2014. As such, they ripped through their set without much fanfare — much like they might've in their 1995 heyday.

As the screen came up, the trio of Kat Bjelland, Clara Salyer, and Lori Barbero thumped right into "He's My Thing," one of their most incendiary proto-MTV classics. From the start, there was a disconnect between the musicians. Bjelland was misfiring on the mic, and Barbero's seismic thumps came in out of sync with the guitar.

There were shades of the Rock the Garden false start, with the same unshook cobwebs despite Salyer's presence on bass. The first five songs went this way, with awkward, silent pauses between tunes where Bjelland and Barbero would huddle and try to collect themselves. Luckily, it worked.

On Babes' sixth song, "Sweet '69,"  they finally found the groove. The crowd felt all the components click into place. Salyer's freight-duty bass aligned with Barbero's thunderous fills, and Bjelland unleashed the full power of her wail. In the tinnitus surrounding the end of that song, it felt like Babes in Toyland had renewed their prime.

The rest of the set continued with the same enormous momentum. Barbero's hypnotic lead vocals on "Drivin'" sent the band careening into the screed "Handsome & Gretel." Without too much charisma on the mic, the long-lost locals played on with a dutiful consistency. It could've been any room in any city.

There was an automatic sense to it — one that, on the one hand, felt like a betrayal to the nostalgia of the evening but, on the other, felt like the byproduct of a band whose only concern was kicking ass like the last 15 years had never happened.

And Barbero did eventually break. As one of the most dedicated stewards of the Minneapolis music scene, she's spent more nights at First Ave than anywhere else in the last two decades. You could tell that, about halfway through the set, it really set in who she was playing for. She wiped some tears as she paused for a moment. "I really don't know what to say anymore," she said with a gobsmacked sigh. "This is really special."

Barbero stopped one more time to give a shoutout to her mentees Bruise Violet before Babes launched into that band's eponymous song, but that was it for the emotion. The final song, "Dust Cake Boy," was over with a staggering suddenness. A wall of feedback and cheers swallowed the early roughness, replacing concerns about a choppy set with hopes that a lengthy encore packed with deep cuts and lost classics would follow.

As hoped, the Babes did re-emerge. Without a word, they ripped through "Oh Yeah," a performance punctuated by Bjelland's shredding and a broken stick popping out from behind Barbero's kit. Bjelland threw down her axe after writhing with it along the floor, leaving another wall of feedback in her wake. And that was it. An abashed wave was as far as the fan service went.

There was a time a decade and a half ago when seeing Babes in Toyland at First Ave wasn't rare. It was always special when they were on stage, but it was OK to dispense with sentimentality. They'd be back. And that's exactly how it felt when they walked off the stage Saturday night.

Critic's bias: Since writing our cover story on Babes in Toyland, I've become something of the Babes in Toyland beat writer around here. As such, I do feel a level of personal investment in the band's success.

The crowd: Earnest punks anywhere from 15 to 65 years old. Nearly everyone in the sold-out room felt like they could've been related to the band. 

Notes on the opener: Kitten Forever are amazing. Their whole show is a spectacle, as the three trade instruments and places on the stage, texturing each song with slight variations in sound. 

Even though Babes in Toyland depends so much on guitar and guttural howls — a huge aesthetic departure from Kitten Forever's Godzilla bass and cheerleader chant vocals — the influence of the former on the latter is evident. You probably couldn't have picked a better opener.

Random notebook dump: Can we nix the dude walking through the crowd with beer on his head during sold-out shows? 

Setlist:

He's My Thing

Right Now

Spit to See the Shine

Bluebell

Swamp Pussy

Sweet '69

Won't Tell

Drivin'

Handsome & Gretel

Catatonic

Bruise Violet

Ariel

Ripe

Vomit Heart

Pearl

Spun

Dust Cake Boy

Encore

Oh Yeah


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