Babes With Axes

July 22, 2017 - 8:00pm

By Bob Fennessy

On Saturday, July 22, the Community Center for the Performing Arts and KRVM proudly welcome Babes With Axes back to the WOW Hall for a fully seated concert.

Babes With Axes is a band that was born at the WOW Hall when four female singer-songwriters joined forces.  Conceived as a one-time gig, the act quickly captured the hearts and minds of local music-lovers who demanded more.  Festival appearances and two concert recordings (both made at the WOW Hall) followed.

The quartet of Debbie Diedrich, Katie Henry, TR Kelley and Laura Kemp performed together (while pursuing their individual careers) until 1998, when Henry’s relocation to Chicago made continuing the act impossible -- except for the occasional reunion performance, most recently in 2014.

I thought it would be fun to do a “group interview” with the Babes via email with Laura in Eugene, TR out in Swisshome, Katie in Davis CA and Debbie in Maryland.

BOB: Pre-Babes, give us a brief run-down of your artistic careers?

LAURA: I was playing coffee houses and festivals as a solo singer songwriter and also as a duo with Katie Henry.

KATIE: When the Babes got together, I was also playing in coffee houses and festivals with a few of other people.  Mainly with Laura, but also with my friends Jimmy Bozeman and Lea Jones.  I was in school at the University of Oregon studying biology and chemistry because I was worried that I couldn't make a living as a musician, and I wanted a challenging and invigorating day job to support me in my musical habit.

TR: I had been playing bass in bar and hotel-circuit cover bands since 1979.  I didn't start writing originals until 1990 and was then "discovered" by Tom Intondi at a WOW Hall basement open-mike series he was hosting.  He invited me to be on the multi-artist Fast Folk Eugene sampler project in early 1993, which was where the Babes idea was hatched.  Debbie had heard Laura and Katie together; she wanted to sing with them, and then how about that bass-player from Fast Folk?  Lets do a round-robin songwriter showcase but let's back each other up on harmonies and extra instruments.... it was only supposed to be one show.


BOB: My file has the first gig as Dec. 2, 1993 at a First Thursday event here sponsored by the NW Music News. Any memories of that event?

TR: I was 8 months pregnant.

LAURA: I have a vague recollection of some folks showing up for the gig, not realizing it was folk music, as the name might lead one to believe otherwise… I think they thought it was going to be a punk concert.


BOB: After that, it seems you went from coffee houses to festival sized gigs — playing for thousands of people at a time.  How did that feel to you?

KATIE: Well, it felt great.  We wanted to do more.  Our time was limited, so we wanted to do high quality gigs that were enjoyable to us.  There was little patience in the group for small bummer gigs far from home when we had serious kids and partners to consider in our lives as well... coordinating four women's lives was no small thing.  We all agreed that we should have had official sponsorship from Goodwill, given the amount of time and investment we spent there getting each concert's gigwear together and coordinated between us.  We agreed to go with polka dots on the Main Stage at the Oregon Country Fair, and that went over very nicely.  I think that was when people started throwing underwear and bras at us stage.  That was fun and rather shocking.  I like shocking.

LAURA: Did we play to thousands of people? I barely remember...

DEBBIE: Mainly, I couldn't stay up that late.

TR: It was chaotic. Not every Babe was comfortable with big sounds and bright lights.  Diana Robson has been our soundBabe many times; she helped interface us with gear.  At some shows we'd have a dozen or more instruments to be dealt with on top of four microphones.... and monitor mixes and feedback and dilithium crystals and contest props and vases of flowers...

BOB: What would you say were some of the highlights of the Babes concert history?

KATIE: I remember what was probably our second gig in Eugene, at some kind of brew fest I think, when TR was nine months pregnant and had to play sitting down on her bass amp.  I remember wondering what the vibration effect of that show would be on her birthing process and the resulting awesome kid.  There was also a series of shows we did in 1998, when I was about five months pregnant with my first kid.  We were doing a tune of TR's call “One Size Fits All” -- a lot for which Laura played a beer bottle like a jug in a jug band, and for which I kind of beat-boxed on the mic and drummed on my pregnant belly.  I think the exposure of the pregnant belly drum was a bit shocking to the audience, which pleased me, and my son Oliver did indeed turn out to be a drummer. He is about to turn 19 this summer.

TR: My favorite memory is of ecstatic women throwing panties and bras and cowboy boots onstage at Oregon Country Fair.  The muddy mosh pit on the EMU East Lawn for the Willamette Valley Folk Festival was pretty memorable too -- how many folk bands get that?

BOB: In December 1994 you returned to the WOW Hall for two shows and a live CD recording (for WOW Live Babes).  How did you prepare for that?

LAURA: These were so long ago I can barely remember… but I do recall that for years we had a weekly rehearsal where we’d drink way too much over the course of the night and hash out harmony parts down to the most minute detail. 

TR: Wine?  Beer?  Chocolate?  I don't remember.

KAYIE: We practiced a lot in TR's garage, and had to agree on what the audience contest would be.

BOB: A second album, Live Axe, was recorded here in 1997.  How had your careers progressed in the interim? 

TR: We all made solo CDs and were getting airplay locally and on national public and college stations. For a non-touring band, we were getting around quite a bit.

KATIE: Lots of things happened for us together and individually during that time.  We could only manage the time to play a certain number of gigs as a group, so each of us filled up the rest of the time with other projects in between.  It was a fun time, and complicated.  I commuted to Seattle for a while, trying to make music and a day job happen there.  I ended up back in Eugene for longer runs of Babes gigs and did some touring with Joanne Rand and the Little Big Band and other friends.  Babes gigs were wonderful, but irregular.  I got married and my husband's job took us to Chicago where I began beating the streets for coffee house and small festival gigs.  The Babes agreed that we would not break up, but would continue playing together periodically when we could pull a string of gigs together.  After I moved, my husband and I brought the Babes out to do a show at the University of Chicago, and we also did a Folk Stage gig in the studio at WFMT in Chicago.  That on-air concert probably reached more ears than any other gig we have done.  We got a serious run of gigs for a while back in Oregon and at the High Sierra Festival in California that had me traveling back and forth between Chicago and Eugene, and then Vermont and New Hampshire and Eugene, but ultimately, the group collectively decided that we are not very good at touring.  Given our families and personal lives and other professional goals, things look better for us when we play close to home (Eugene) and only every now and then.  So that's what we've done ever since.

BOB: The farewell show was held here in April ‘98, although there was never a breakup.  I know we had a six year anniversary concert in December ‘99, another reunion in April 2000, the “Dialing for Katie” show that December, and the 14 year reunion in 2014.  What brings the Babes back together this year?

KATIE: Friendship.  Love of playing good music and laughing together.  Lots of stories to tell.  There is no other more rewarding combination I have ever played in.  We are basically getting together to have a party together, and inviting the audience to come along and join us if they want.  We are going to have a great time on stage and off!

TR: The 2014 reunion was excellent fun but the recording didn't work out, so we want to try again.  Lots of changes in our individual lives and we need to process them over wine, beer, chocolate and guitars. So may as well involve our fans and friends as well, right?  We're all on this bus together.

LAURA: We missed each other and had so much fun in 2014 that we decided to do it again.  I’d also say that over the years I personally realized how much I took for granted at the time the magic that we created when we played together. I was so young when we got together and just assumed that making music with people would always be as synergistic as it was with the Babes.  In hindsight I think we all realize now what an amazing thing we had going back then.

DEBBIE: I think what made it work so well were the distinct differences in our musical histories, styles and personalities.  There was no leader.  There was no star.  We strummed and cried our way through true collaboration.  The live performances reflected that.

BOB: What should fans expect — a night of nostalgia or something new?

LAURA: Some of both

TR: Probably a mix -- we're looking at the 2014 set list and definitely want to give some of those newer and less-heard ones another go, and also some brand-new stuff.  No matter what, it will be entertaining and fun, there is a short contest with a prize and we're going to try again to get a good recording of the experience!

KATIE: Well, I am not too into dwelling on nostalgia.  You never ever can know what to expect at a Babes show except for that it will be fun and a bit oddball, and we have great contests and prizes, and that the music is wonderful and heartfelt.  My favorite prize was the Jell-O brain that Debbie made for one concert, and another favorite prize was a see-through shower curtain with a map of the world on it signed by each Babe.  My third favorite contest prize was in 2014, when we gave out first, second and third place electric fans, all signed by the Babes.  The first place fan was in the shape of a big colorful metal rooster.  I loved the concept of giving fans to fans!  That gives you a little insight into the humor that we share together.

DEBBIE: There will be more chairs for the audience this time!


BOB: Any other projects you want the fans to know about?

TR: TR Kelley's project THE RAVENTONES has released a new album, Much More Black; her first since 2003.  She also plays bass and sings with STEEL WOOL who also just released a new album titled Just Maybe.  Both will be available at the show and online, together with the collective BWA discography.

LAURA: I have spun off in various genres over the last decade - after studying and exploring jazz for many years, I released a standards album in 2016; I have been leading Kirtans (devotional Hindu music that is sung in Sanskrit, call and response style); and most recently have been delving heart first back into my singer-songwriter/folk roots, which feels really good, and sorta like I’ve come home again.

DEBBIE: I haven't focused on any music projects since I started teaching elementary school in 2008. We moved to Maryland three years ago where I've been teaching in a public French Immersion School about ten miles from the National Mall.  This will be my first visit back to Eugene since 2014.

KATIE: Well, for anyone who is curious. I've had a second solo project in the works for the past ten years.  But I don't know when that will ever be finished.  It's sitting in the attic of Studio E in Sebastopol right now.  I had a great trio for a number of years in Davis, CA where I live now.  It was called MudLark, and we put out a sweet CD called Nest some years ago.  I also sang in a very different kind of group for about seven years called the Vocal Art Ensemble.  It's an acapella choral group that sings all kinds of wonderful choral works, from Renaissance motets to modern works to world music.  We were honored to win the 2012 American Prize for Creative Programming and Collaboration, and have toured England, Scotland and Ireland.  I have taken a leave of absence from that group to go back to school for a while, but I hope to rejoin them soon.  I also have a budding little trio called The Front Porch with my friends Scarlet Huber and Craig Thompsen; we do prestigious gigs like neighborhood potlucks, open mics and retirement parties.  We love to sing together.  And last, but not least, I have been singing in an amazing jazz ensemble called Mercurial Mind for the past couple of years, together with David Kyle on keys, Bart Wise on bass, Jon Chengary on drums, and Naoki Sato on horns and guitar.  We have an awesome time exploring jazz standards and other musical space, and played our first festival gig a few weeks ago at Pondapaloozza.  All of these things aside, though, I am beside myself with excitement to head up to Eugene to play with the Babes!  There is nothing better in the universe.

            This is a fully seated show, with seating on a first come, first served basis.  Tickets are $15 in advance, $15 day of show.  Doors open at 7:00 pm and showtime is 8:00.


Door Time: 
July 22, 2017 - 7:00pm
$15 Advance, $15 Day of Show