Off-duty trip

Pub date October 6, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

MUSIC Gina Birch, discussing a Raincoats gig earlier this month at the National Portrait Gallery in London, pauses for a moment over the phone from home in England. Although the resurgence of interest in her band’s music began well over a decade ago, she still sounds a bit surprised at the Raincoats’ esteemed status in the rock lexicon today.

"We’re being more embraced by the cultural elite, which is quite funny, really, " Birch explains, humbly. "It’s just at that point where the people who liked us when they were young are in positions to offer us this kind of thing." The Raincoats, it should be said, just plain deserve acclaim anew. Birch started the band with Ana da Silva in 1977 while they were art students in London — a daring lark that still resonates deeply with sounds you hear today, as evidenced by the line-up they’re headlining at the Part Time Punks Mini-Fest.

It’s an admittedly nerdy delight to hear Birch talk about punk’s early days in London. In addition to bands like the Buzzcocks and Subway Sect, she says that she and guitarist-singer da Silva were inspired by the Slits, whose original guitarist, Viv Albertine, will be joining the Raincoats at the Part Time Punks show. "It was definitely seeing other girls doing it that made me feel like I could give it a go," she explains. Seeing such bands, she says, "gave me the courage to wear the clothes I wanted to wear, chop up my hair … feeling like I could let rip a little bit!" The Slits’ drummer, Palmolive, would join da Silva and Birch — who sang and learned bass as she went along — in the Raincoats’ original lineup, along with violinist Vicky Aspinall. The band put out a few albums with Rough Trade before initially dissolving in 1984.

Since the Raincoats’ original break-up, they’ve reunited sporadically, recording an album (1996’s Looking in the Shadows, on DGC) and playing the occasional show, all the while being sure to "leave a little room for mistakes," because, says Birch, "it’s much more manageable!" Their current live lineup features violinist Anne Wood, who’s been with them for 15 years, and local drummer Vice Cooler, known to many in the Bay Area for Hawnay Troof and his work in xbxrx and KIT.

The Raincoats are playing here in support of a stateside LP reissue of their 1979 self-titled debut, out Oct. 13 on Kill Rock Stars. Although the group is perhaps best known for its debut single, "Fairytale in the Supermarket" and their cover of the Kinks’ "Lola," every one of the Raincoats’ recordings sounds fresh — inviting but often dark, alternately vulnerable and indignant, hopeful and deeply human. The pastel pink, green, and yellow sleeve of their "No One’s Little Girl" b/w "Running Away" 7-inch (Rough Trade, 1982) caught my eye at a record fair in England a few years ago, and it’s easily one of the best records I own, especially because of its B-side: a sweet, trumpet-punctuated cover of Sly Stone — totally unreal, and just one side of their multifarious brilliance.

Both da Silva and Birch have solo projects these days, and Birch, a longtime filmmaker, is working on a feature-length Raincoats documentary due out next year, featuring loads of old footage and a look at their more recent endeavors. More reissues are on the way as well, Birch assures, as they continue to forge ahead on "the fringes."

"I find it much more inspiring and interesting and heartwarming in the world where it’s more human and strange," Birch says. "There’ll always be the fringes, and long live the fringes! That’s where interesting stuff happens."

This brings us to Grass Widow, local openers on the Part Time Punks bill, who embody much of what makes the Raincoats so extraordinary: rooted in raw punk and peculiar, intricate harmonies, they produce songs vivid enough to summon a visual counterpart. "Our music crosses over into the subject matter I end up making films about," says bassist Hannah Lew. During a recent meet-up, Lew articulated the group’s excitement about playing with the Raincoats by stating that even if they weren’t playing the show, "we would go anyway." This year, Grass Widow released a self-titled LP (Make a Mess) and a 12-inch EP (Captured Tracks/Cape Shok). In January, they’re headed to Portland, Ore., to record another album. Get there early to see them.


With Grass Widow, Section 25, Gang of Four DJ set, and more

Fri/9, 8 p.m., $20–$25


444 Jessie, SF

(415) 625-8880