Sisters to the Front

Bucking a disturbing trend, Bumbershoot has filled its festival stages with women. Sister acts lead the way.

Bumbershoot gives our city its fair share to boast about, and we can add gender equity to that list. Our homegrown festival’s lineup of musical artists is almost 40 percent female, making it one of the most gender-equitable in the country. For those who’ve noted that’s still less than half, here’s a statistic to put it in perspective: Buzzfeed reported in April that “Women musicians have always been severely underrepresented at Coachella. Since its inception in 1999, the average of female-driven acts at Coachella represents about 16 percent of the total bill, and throughout the festival’s history on the whole, there has never been a year with more than a 25 percent female lineup.”

Not only are women prominent at this year’s ’Shoot, sister acts, all of whom established their popularity in different eras—Heart, the Breeders, and Tegan and Sara—anchor the festival lineup.

Since its inception, sister acts have been a popular-music mainstay. Country music has given us two extreme examples: the seminal, angelic purity of the Carter Sisters, whose imprint can still be felt in modern country, and the sheer novelty of the Mandrell Sisters, whose early-’80s variety show featured the famous Barbara, her hardworking brunette doppelganger Louise, and little sister Irlene, who had a voice much like her figure—really thin—and proved to be better suited for her role as a hot-pantsed Hee Haw Honey than an actual singer.

Few would argue there is a time in music history before and after Veronica Bennett—aka Ronnie Spector—her older sister Estelle, and cousin Nedra Talley formed the Ronettes and asked us to “Be My Baby,” or that music was forever impacted by the Shangri-Las, whose influential “Leader of the Pack” vocals were due to dual sister duos, Mary and Betty Weiss and twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. Familial vocal similarities served as an essential aspect of the “Wall of Sound” era, when doubling vocals was an intricate process; Motown’s roster employed several female-relative voices essential to the label’s signature sound. In our digital era, the youthful harmonies created by Stockholm-based sisters Johanna and Klara Söderburg of First Aid Kit seem like a feat of production mastery, but experienced live they create a spine-tingling resonance that again reminds us again why sister acts have proven so appealing.

The ladies of R&B have a history of keeping it in the family, from the Sisters Pointer to Sledge, whose most memorable hit, “We Are Family,” literally expounds its virtues. But as in all “relative” situations, familial dynamics are bound to rear their ugly head. In an industry that encourages female competition, the extra static generated by sparking sibling rivalry puts sister acts in a position to which their male counterparts are seldom subject. In the ’80s, male record executives tried to deem Anne Wilson “the face” of Heart and Nancy Wilson “the body.” It’s hard to imagine such monikers being assigned to male sibling acts like Oasis’ Noel and Liam Gallagher, as evidenced by the fact that no one at their record company ever saw fit to hand either of them a pair of tweezers. Yet Heart’s career has now weathered its fourth decade and the personal road bumps that made them the basis for the infamous airplane-crash confessional scene in Almost Famous—a testament to the Wilson sisters’ bond.

The ties that bind have also served Kim and Kelley Deal well. The Ohio twins’ collaboration on Last Splash brought the Breeders their biggest brush with success, and their relationship still serves as a touchstone in their respective struggles with sobriety. Another set of twins, Tegan and Sara, seem to have avoided altogether the sister-act pitfalls. Working with someone with whom you share a derivation, you don’t have a Bowie-esque ability to indulge in artistic egotism. Yet with only their haircut to separate them, the Canadian duo managed a radical musical transformation from heartfelt indie-pop kids to commercially viable yet emotionally weighted dance queens with an ear for a hard hook—a leap of faith you’d have to trust someone like a sister to make.

Heart plays Saturday at 9:45 p.m. on the Mainstage.

The Breeders play Sunday at 8 p.m. on the TuneIn Stage.

Tegan & Sara play Sunday at 2 p.m. on the Mainstage.

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