Once a year for the past decade, flamboyantly dressed punks, goths and hippies descend on a sleepy Oakland park. Casual basketballers and nurses on break are replaced by hipster food trucks, 2 stages, and throngs of counter-culture music lovers. Mosswood Meltdown, once named Burger Boogaloo but renamed in 2021 following allegations of sexual misconduct at the namesake record label Burger Records (no actual affiliation to the festival), has been bringing out legends (Mudhoney, Iggy Pop, Ronnie Spector) as well as new and local artists (Shannon and the Clams, Quintron, Body Double) every summer—and sometimes Halloween too.
This year’s line up was just as legendary, and as always, hosted by the hilarious and irreverent filmmaker and writer John Waters. On July 1st, opening bands included LA-based punks Memo PST, elecro-goth group cumgirl8, and chillaxed indie rockers Morgan and the Organ Donors, featuring Tobi Vail. At around 3 in the afternoon, Waters introduced the Japanese rock band The 5678s, most well known for their track “Woo Hoo” featured on the Kill Bill soundtrack. But Water’s most notable comment was that the group’s first musical inspiration was Chuck Berry. This rang true throughout the performance, as the 3 musicians on stage channeled the energy of punk rock into 12 bar blues bangers with powerful vocals and entrancing harmonies.
Next up was Tina and the Total Babes, fronted by local hairdresser by day, legendary punk rocker by night, Tina Lucchesi, whose other musical bands and projects are numerous. On stage, following some quips from Waters about punks and corporate representation, Tina and her babes were cutting it up with fun and sassy power punk jams akin to early Muffs or the Runaways. After the high energy flamboyance of Tina, returning act Quintron and Miss Pussycat took the stage with some danceable jams. Then came The Rondelles, a group that first gained success in the riot grrl scene while the members were still in highschool in the late 90s. Now 25 years later, the Rondelles brought the same DIY fun energy to the stage, especially crushing their song “Mission: Irresistible”. The group’s poppy jams, and mix of heavy guitar and keyboard, and tongue in cheek lyrics and harmonies made their set irresistible.
The crowd was treated to something different when ESG took the stage. A band originally formed in ‘78, ESG’s off kilter mix of funk, house, and punk music made them a highly sampled band in early hip hop, with their song “UFO” being one of the most sampled songs in rap history. The set featured an awesome fusion of 80s drum sounds, polyrhythmic, reggae vibes, punk energy, and Nina Hagen-like vocals that really brought a new sound to the festival.
The last two acts of the night summed up perfectly the beauty of Mosswood Meltdown. Headliners Le Tigre played a sarcastic and political set spanning their early 2000s albums. The electropunk band, inactive for about 20 years, is the second Kathleen Hanna act to headline the show in 2 years, but Hanna still brought all the fire, humor, and social commentary for round two. Le Tigre classics like “Whats ur Take on Cassavetes” and “TKO” played well along with updated political banter about destroying the right wing. But Hanna mainly focussed on the healing nature of live music and cringy dancing, which pretty much all of the crowd participated in during the set.
But the highlight of the night was Twompsax, a 5 year old band out of Oakland fronted by the incredible Cher Strauberry, a trans skater and amazing vocalist, who played right before Le Tigre took the stage. Strauberry’s energy was unmatched, with bubbly and wild vocals that riled the moshpit into a frenzy. Although Twompsax just broke up, their version of queer punk was the music that made me most excited for the future of Mosswood Meltdown. Near the end of her set, Cher dedicated a song to all the trans girls who have to go out in public, just even to walk around the block. The anger that she channeled into the one minute song after that was the best punk performance I’ve seen. The only problem with Twompsax’s set was that it lasted only 15 minutes, as the band burned through their 90 second long songs with unmatched fury. Before their final song, Strauberry said of her music “if it’s helped anyone, It’s helped me more.” When she walked offstage, the crowd lingered longer than any other set, demanding one more song that wouldn’t come.
Day Two of Mosswood Meltdown started with 90s metal band Vore, the pop fusion hits of Bower, and the brand new punk sounds of Snooper, and the whimsical stylings of Teddy Bear Orchestra. When The Avengers took the stage, I could tell I was in the presence of punk royalty. The band, led by the wild and angry vocals of Penelope Houston, first formed in SF in 1977, and yet their sound seemed fresh and urgent, especially when Houston wailed her political hit “The American in Me.” At one point they invited 3/4s of preteen punk group The Linda Linda’s to take the stage with them, a sort of passing the torch to a new generation of punk rock.
When Mika Miko took the stage, for their first gig in over 20 years, they brought a similar level of anger and energy, with 2 minute songs that inspired crowd surfing galore and even featured a sax performance by the vocalist, proving they haven’t lost their punk spirit. Next was JJ Fad, a hip hop group whose smash hit “Supersonic” features on any respectable 80s rap playlist. The group seemed to find it funny that they were featured at a mostly punk festival, but most of the middle aged crowd went crazy when the band launched into their grammy-nominated tune. The girls brought humor, dance moves, and fire beatboxing skills that didn’t let up, even though their set was mostly just dancing and playing “Supersonic.”
For Riot Grrl legend Bratmobile’s much anticipated return to the stage after 20 years, they brought 3 new members in addition to the original songwriting duo to add to their tongue and cheek feminist songs. They reminisced on the good old days of touring with Gravy Train, who would soon be taking the main stage, and talked about stealing lyrics from Liz Phair. After 20 years, they still had all the humor and anger that made Bratmobile undeniable.
After a relatively tame day of punk rock, Gravy Train!!!! came in swinging with phallic props, filthy jokes, and lyrics that made any parents regret bringing their kids to the show. John Waters described them as an orgy of musical hysteria, and I realized what he meant when they launched into “ghost boobs,” bringing giant blow up boobs dressed up in ghost costumes onto the stage, and later throwing them in the crowd. Gravy Train!!!! out-joked all of the acts combined, with Junx (Brontez Purnell) screaming insane things about ketamine and his conceptual art degree from Berkeley. For Gravy Train!!!, the attitude was everything—as they started, the screen behind them read “Musical talent is not the reason Gravy Train!!!! Is taking the world by storm,” and throughout the show, they poked fun at their own musical talent, playing blow up plastic guitars. They were delightfully irreverent after the serious feminism of some of the other groups. At one point, Purnell screamed “f*** the queer community, some of y’all owe me money!” The music was equal parts energetic, addictive, and funny. With the aid of hilarious animated shorts behind them on screen songs like burger baby were unforgettably disgusting and yet impossible not to watch. For their grand finale, they teased an unbelievable guest, and then brought out one of the members dressed as slash on stage. The crowd was still laughing hysterically long after “Welcome to the Jungle” ended and Mosswood Meltdown 2023 was officially over. By Monday, Mosswood park again be a patch of grass where overworked Kaiser nurses take their breaks, but I was still thinking about Cher Strauberry’s fresh cutting rage and Gravy Train!!!!’s hilariously raunchy stage props.