FemFest turns down the gaslight

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Sarah Wilson of CHEW commads the beat at a FemFest performance at Monstercade. (photo by Todd Turner)

For some, those mandatory neon wristbands — the ones doormen tend to wrap-and-stick a little too tightly and that haphazardly pull at wispy wrist hairs — can trigger unease or panic, can trigger the body’s memory of restraints or a controlling grasp.

At Monstercade’s sign-in table, though, Bryn Fox takes care to leave some breathing room.

Fox is the founder of FemFest, an annual benefit show designed to raise awareness of the ubiquity of domestic violence and sexual assault as well as funds for Winston-Salem’s women’s shelter. The festival of female musicians and woman-fronted bands celebrates its fifth year on two intimate stages at Monstercade and Southside Beer Garden, which share a parking lot but diverge in ambience; Southside features an afternoon slate of local singer-songwriters while Monstercade hosts a medley of atmospheric, dark groove and dream-pop acts culminating in a performance from space psych group Pleasure, led by dynamic frontwoman Katherine Kelly.

“We’re here because we’re in pursuit of a better reality and we know what that could look like,” Amy Fitzgerald of a one-woman act Damiyana says. “This is about ignoring all the voices that are trying to tell you that you don’t know what you’re doing… and instead trusting the voice that is you, that’s telling you who you are and making you feel strong.”

Fitzgerald alludes to the lasting effects of chronic gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation in which a person causes another to doubt their own perceptions, memories and sanity, and the ways people often internalize and self-inflict the same cruelty.

“My music has been helping me…use my creativity as a way to reclaim my sexuality, my identity and my mental health.”

During her set, Fitzgerald frames writing music as a healing experience for her and says that getting closer to nature has been grounding, and so she likes to play with sounds of the outdoors in her seismic experimental soundscapes. From the belly of this grungy joint, she pairs the crickets’ song with simple piano melodies and abstract sounds recorded in curious midafternoon hours; she switches the soundbites on/off with bare toes on stage.

Sarah Wilson, drummer of CHEW, drives the conversation with her drumkit, commanding the stage in front of a screen projecting trippy, dripping infrared filters over slowed-down live footage. She runs her left drumstick along a cascade of chimes while pounding the bass and tap-tap-tapping the snare. She’s in control; a song slows and quiets and it’s her above-the-head, “One, two, three, four!” that cues a rapid crescendo from her bandmates.

Local singer-songwriter Molly Grace, who spends a lot of time writing about love, spoke from the stage about how it’s typical to feel upset during a heartbreak but that it’s troubling how many don’t realize they shouldn’t feel endlessly distraught in any relationship.

“It is pretty remarkable how worthless a lot of women are made to feel by ‘good’ men, and it’s also, obviously, worth noting how worthless women are made to feel by garbage men,” Grace says. “Even though we’re here for a cause that really specifically has to do with the latter of those two types of men, there are many other ways people can be made to feel very, very small in relationships.”

Few among us feel small tonight as femme garage-pop trio Stevie performs lo-fi originals and spurs dancing to Devo’s “Gates of Steel.” Guitarist Chesley Kalnen steps off the raised stage and plays alongside the audience, just one among an impressive slate of women and femmes taking up and reclaiming space with their sounds, their lyrics, their voices, their energy, amplified front-and-center tonight.

“This is a beautiful occasion,” Fitzgerald says. “Even though [the trauma] does affect us sometimes now, we can rise up from it and recognize it as part of who we are, but not necessarily defining who we are. We all have our stories.”

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