A staple of the Houston music scene for decades, Mydolls played the Lawndale Art Center last Friday night in the third installment of the gallery’s SPEAKEASY series, celebrating a vinyl release of their latest EP, 2015's It's Too Hot For Revolution. According to the website, the program “re-envisions Lawndale's "Speakeasy" series, which took place from 1993-2002 to cast a reflexive eye on the center's "historical relationship to live performance and the exploration of issues in contemporary art.”
No surprise that Mydolls would be a natural selection. The beloved group has celebrated a career that spans decades and reaches back into some of the earliest moments of Houston’s punk scene. Yet that doesn’t mean a Mydolls show happens every weekend, nor does a red vinyl EP release. So, in one of the hottest tickets of the season, I found myself in close quarters among a packed house in a gallery full of people spilling out into the hallway, all longing for a listen of some living legends of Houston punk.
The evening started off with a round-table discussion, where the band members fielded questions about the history of their music careers, tour anecdotes and other stories of the past. Also included on the panel were past Lawndale Director Mary Ross Taylor and local historian Pete Gershon.
Bassist and guitarist Dianna Ray opened up about what made a difference in her stage performance and playing. “Well, I’ll just say it — sorry, kids in the audience — but what made a difference for me was not playing drunk," she said. "I remember playing sober for the first time and when we had finished [the set] I said to Trish [singer/guitarist Herrera], ‘I’m never doing that again.’”
Speaking honestly about an issue that many musicians face is tough. But Mydolls are honest, salt of the earth musicians who know that sobriety is a choice of courage. Sober even today, Ray's change made a lasting impact on her life and career.
While the audience chuckled at the remark, it's apparent that whatever Mydolls' strategy is, it continues to work. Vulnerability, growth and a lifetime of friendships have made the bonds between bandmates incredibly strong. Yet perhaps the greatest asset the band possesses is the continual building of a family vibe among friends, fans and longtime listeners. There’s no attending a Mydolls show without a display of close camaraderie, hugs, and laughs from people who have known each other for years.
Yet it’s more than that. A Mydolls show is a celebration of life. Singer Linda Younger pointed to the wall behind the stage, where a black-and-white reel rolled: “That was the Mydolls in 1984!” A silent film showed three fresh-faced young women and a young handsome drummer. In the grainy recorded video, a petite Ray adjusts her plaid hat, Younger picks up a violin and strums it like a guitar while Herrera pulls the microphone to her lips and points at the audience offscreen.
It’s a vision that has been carefully curated and documented by not just the band members, but Houston's own artistic community. Last summer, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston hosted an evening honoring the band and its history as part of its 20HERTZ series. Theirs is a living history that continues to write itself new chapters every year.
Nancy Agin Dunnahoe, publicist for the band and archivist at Wild Dog Archives, says of the evenings performance, “"Mydolls' legacy as Houston's original femme-punk band, [who] performed in experimental art spaces such as Lawndale Art Annex during the 1980s, is important to preserve and celebrate through events such as [this]. This collectible red vinyl EP is part of that legacy."
About Revolution, she adds, "It was an honor to work closely with Stephanie Mitchell, executive director at Lawndale, and local art historian and co-curator Pete Gershon. Releasing their collectible red vinyl EP [is] a legacy album in its own right.”
“Mydolls Revolution is more than a reference to the album; it is very much about standing for what's right, as Mydolls have always done, and building a world in which love wins,” Dunnahoe continues. “Events like this in which music and art come together revive that classic DIY spirit of punk — that notion of building a world of our own — and paying it forward by inspiring and empowering girls such as [Friday's openers] Lazer Kittenz. I mean, how cool is it to see this kind of lineup?”
It’s a testament to their longevity and tenacity for making important music. Their version of DIY art-punk lives on and bursts forth in some of their strongest songs yet, to hear Herrera’s voice shout through the lyrics of “Politician” is the stuff of authentic punk-protest gold. Tracks like “Walls of Tunisia” and “Don’t Fucking Die” prove that Mydolls can still write avant-garde tunes with the spirit of angst-ridden punk rockers.
It’s not just empty talk for Mydolls, either. Part of their message is encouraging the next generation of young girls to pick up musical instruments and express themselves, too. Friday, the group literally gave their opening spot to a two-piece female rock act whose collective ages do not yet reach 20 years. Still, Lazer Kittenz played a set that any punk band in town would have loved to claim.
Using only a floor tom and guitar, the duo combined breathy vocals and a keen sense of arrangement. Seemingly at home behind the microphone and in front of an audience, they took listeners through several original songs. Not too bad for a couple of kids not yet in junior high.
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Singer Linda Younger spoke about how she heard of Lazer Kittenz. “I met David Leftwich, [the guitar player’s father] at KPFT when we were both scheduled to be on the Open Journal that same day," she said. "The rest is Herstory.”
Younger took a moment during the set to praise Girls Rock Camp Houston, led by Anna Garza, saying that meeting young female musicians through the camp is an exciting oportunity for Mydolls. Founder and Director Garza says of the band's help with the camp, “The Mydolls have their fingerprints all over Girls Rock Camp Houston. Dianna and Linda [have] invested a lot of their time, knowledge and love from year one to present. I am forever indebted to their support of me and GRCH.”
Anyone who’s familiar with Mydolls shouldn’t be surprised at the gesture. Giving back to the community is something all the members do with regularity. Herrera has long given her time at local hospitals with her therapy dog, Angel, who even had a day named after her by former mayor Annise Parker.
No matter what lies ahead for this group, it will undoubtedly include reciprocating the love that Houston has bestowed upon its favorite punk-rock daughters (and one incredibly dedicated drummer). For now, fans will have to spin their latest record and wait for the next historic chapter to unfold.