All photos by Edwina Hay
“We’re a Black, feminist punk band. That means we’re trans revolutionaries. That means we’re Black revolutionaries. That means we’re feminist revolutionaries. And, this is the real test,” drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone pauses for effect, “we’re working class revolutionaries.”
Big Joanie are everything they claim to be and more. Their lyrics are reflective and probing, digging deep and pulling us into the ups and downs of relationships and self-identity. On stage they maintain that sense of intimacy while building a big, welcoming tent. People lost their minds when the British trio performed at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. The club buzzed with anticipation long before Big Joanie played. Even as the opening band, Frida Kill, ripped through their own sizzling set, they made it clear they were just as excited as the rest of us to see Big Joanie. Early in Frida Kill’s set guitarist Lily Gist declared, “We’re from here. Big Joanie is from across the pond. I’m going to hype them up the whole set!”
The dancing started early and escalated until people were pinballing across the room. It was the most joyful slam dancing I’ve ever bounced up against. Each song was a combustible combination of kinetic energy, hooks, harmonies, and acceptance.
“You make my world feel less than”
Abigail Lyons was impacting my life before I met her. Last spring representatives from the US Department of Justice came to my kids’ high school to facilitate discussions on racism in our community. Four sessions under the banner of “Transforming Conflict and Developing Solutions Through Dialogue on Race.” I was shocked. Racism is pervasive but rarely acknowledged in our area (Putnam County, NY). The meetings were in response to a series of viciously racist videos a group of students made and posted on social media. Pretending to be the school principal and a local sheriff, they threatened Black and Latino students with “jokes” about active shooters and lynchings. The school acknowledged the videos being racist but didn’t report the threats. That’s where Abi stepped in. She alerted local media to the full extent of the videos. She’s the reason the DOJ was in town. I went to the meeting to see how I can be a better ally. I didn’t know anyone when I entered the gym, but I felt like I’d entered a panel from John Lewis’ March and good trouble was brewing. I just happened to sit next to Abi.
To be in Big Joanie’s presence is to drink the most righteous of elixirs–cleansing and empowering. They pack a full force punch collectively. Yet that unified front is fueled by striking, distinct personalities. Stephanie Phillips does most of the singing and plays guitar. She wears glasses and dons a collared dress. She’s found where she’s comfortable on stage and minimizes her movements. She doesn’t talk much between songs either, but she doesn’t need to. She has a low-key vocal delivery that prompts me to lean in and listen closer. Her lyrics are intriguingly ambiguous at times and yet she makes her perspectives clear. She has this matter-of-fact sensibility. I made myself clear. I trust you were listening. Let’s go from there. Dialogical. Professorial in the best sense.
Bassist Estella Adeyeri holds down stage left. She’s a different type of dynamo, the glue that bonds so many elements of the band’s sound. Between her performance and her appearance, she seems 12 feet tall. Mostly because of the way she plays. She’s always in the right spot. I sense she could break out busier bass lines but opts to hold back just enough. She also wears high heels and a gown slit almost to the hip. She brings a sense of glamor rarely seen in punk, yet she’s not the distant, aloof diva type. She’s the one who steps down from the stage and works her way through the crowd.
Then there’s drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone standing between her bandmates, front and center. Two toms, cymbals, and a snare drum adorned by roses. Sometimes she favors her floor tom over her snare, emphasizing rhythm over beat, or maybe she’s redefining beats. With her black leather vest, large belt buckle, and red bra she looks like a pirate, albeit a radical punk pirate who handles most of the stage banter, dropping philosophy and recommending books throughout the set.
“Look at all of me
I’m right here”
Abi is adept at identifying allies and pairing people with ways to get involved. When my kids came to one of the DOJ meetings, she asked if they’d be peer mentors for Community Alliance for Empowerment, aka CAFE, the grass roots organization she helped start with several other people in town. When CAFE organized a Juneteenth celebration, Abi sought out historian Linda Paris. It was the area’s first announced/ public Juneteenth celebration. Food, music, dancing, and speeches on the front steps of the local courthouse. Among other speakers, Abi’s husband Andrae read Frederick Douglas’ 1852 speech, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” and Joe McPhee came from Poughkeepsie to read a poem titled “The Ship with Marigold Sails.” The passing traffic made it hard to hear, but it was good to be visible in a town stifled by so much indifference.
On the band’s first record, Sistahs, Big Joanie kept their sound sparse and put a lot of space between the instruments–bass and floor tom on the low end, guitar and snare in the middle, and ample room for the vocals. Big Joanie recorded their latest album, Back Home, with the same producer (Margo Broom) at the same studio (Hermitage Works), but Back Home has a wider range of sounds. The band manages the space differently, expanding their palette with more keyboards and drum machines, also including more backing vocals. I revere their first record and was surprised how quickly I embraced its successor. It’s a big jump forward. Imagine the Jam leaping from In the City straight to All Mod Cons or Bikini Kill going from their self-titled 12” right to Reject All American. Big Joanie is a band with a plan.
“What are you waiting for
There’s no time for standing on your own”
–“What Are You Waiting For?”
Abi made sure news of what happened in our small town didn’t just stay in our small town. She was on CNN. She contacted the state attorney general’s office, which prompted Letitia James (“the AG!” as Abi said in her email invitation) to come meet with CAFE. I still can’t believe this. Letitia James, the same woman who’s taken on the NRA, the NFL, Andrew Cuomo, and number 45, speaking in the same shopping plaza in which I took my kids to their first movies. James wanted people to know they weren’t alone and that her office stood with them, whether it was the hateful videos, the harassment of a local restaurant owner, Louis Mooney, for hosting a drag night, or the countless other times folks are made to feel like they don’t belong. She was riveting, and Abi made this happen.
The opening songs on Back Home pick up where Sistahs left off. The guitars jangle and buzz, the harmonies soar while the bass and floor tom melt into the most satisfying rumble. I love the opening combo of “Cactus Tree” and “Taut.” Other times they steer into the new sounds. I dig how the early ‘80s hand claps and drum machine stick to the gooey synthesizer on “Confident Man.” My favorite song is the pure pop perfection of “In My Arms.” I was hooked three seconds into the first spin. The opening guitar line is delightful, ringing and chiming like the Chills at their best. Then they stir in an organ that conjures the Clean and a layer of super sweet “oohs.” Had they stayed put they’d have sculpted a terrific song. But then they loop layers of backing vocals, one silky smooth addition after another. I’d say I’ve lost track of how many parts they’re singing, but I’ve never tried counting. I get lost in the warm embrace of those kaleidoscopic vocals coupled with the tinge of bittersweet in the lyrics. (The narrator is thinking of being in their sweetie’s arms, but not actually with them at the moment.) And there’s the latest single from the album, “Today,” which boasts its own classic riff and could that be Mellotron? (There’s also an alternate version with Kim Deal on backing vocals.)
The Big Joanie show was just two days after the CAFE meeting with Letitia James. The overlapping vibes were inescapable. Electric personalities working small rooms, crowded and galvanizing, stirring congregations eager to plug in and recharge. Abi told me that James “draws you in and makes you feel comfortable to open up.” The same goes for Big Joanie. On stage and on record, their punk rock is a barrelful of psychic propellant. Toward the end of their set, Chardine Taylor-Stone summed it up: “Take this energy out into the world. This is what it could be like.”
Special thanks to Edwina Hay for allowing us to include her photographs. You can see more of her work at This Is Not a Photograph.