Review and photos: Pussy Riot disrupt your expectations at the Turf Club

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Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)

"Unexpected" often means "catastrophic." It's used to describe a tornado; a death; a major shift we can't control. The world is volatile, and first responses to the unknown often include discomfort, dread, and even resignation. But at a time when so many fear the unknown, Pussy Riot co-founder Nadya Tolokonnikova harnesses this discomfort for her own goals of widespread political change.

Tolokonnikova -- born Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the former Soviet Union -- brought punk band/protest group/political movement Pussy Riot to the Turf Club in St. Paul last night. Unlike most of Pussy Riot's past shows, this one was authorized. Past performances include a "punk prayer" at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which landed Tolokonnikova and fellow Rioter Masha Alyokhina in jail for two years, while this one served as night two of the band's first North American tour.

Even in a traditional venue like the Turf Club, Pussy Riot subverted the expectations of attendees, who likely anticipated a straightforward punk show. Instead, the openers included a political speech and a podcast taping, both of which amplified the voices of local activists.

Tolokonnikova first took the stage in an electric blue balaclava around 9 p.m., staying just long enough to introduce Samantha Pree-Stinson, a Green Party-endorsed woman of color who ran for Minneapolis City Council last year. Raising issues like police brutality and systemic injustice, Pree-Stinson delivered a brief, pointed speech: "Stop being Minnesota nice. Start being Minnesota real; Minnesota effective." To cap her time, she asked the crowd to repeat these words by Assata Shakur: "It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."

The spotlight on local activism continued as Tolokonnikova and Weapon of Choice host and filmmaker Tommy Franklin discussed their mutual experiences with incarceration, resilience, and art for almost 40 minutes. The crowd might only expect music at the show, Tolokonnikova said, but that's not where Pussy Riot begins and ends. Pussy Riot is political performance art, working to "make politics cool again," "make us dream again," and sustain people with "cynical hope" (Tolokonnikova's full first name, "Nadezhda," means "hope" in Russian). Three hundred fifty audience members stood rapt. Once the podcast episode is online, anyone can listen.

You know Tom and Jerry as a kids' cartoon, but Tolokonnikova calls it an allegory for her life. "I see myself as Jerry and [Vladimir] Putin's regime as Tom," she told Franklin. She can be smacked into the shape of a radiator -- sent to a penal colony -- and a few seconds later, she pops up, good as new. In prison letters to Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek, she adds, "Sparring is how you build endurance, how you learn to be quick on your feet and develop a sense of humor. Unlike the old Left, we can't just reject capitalism out of hand -- we'll get further by playing with it, teasing till it's been perverted."

Tolokonnikova is a master of this perversion, and she refuses to deal in the currency of patriarchal expectations. A balaclava covers her extraordinary beauty, because as Pussy Riot zine author Susan Andrews points out, "Her beauty is the least interesting thing about her." Tolokonnikova can't play any instruments, and she's not a great singer. But there's a reason Kathleen Hanna has been more excited about Pussy Riot than any other group. Once the podcast recording ended and the music began, Tolokonnikova was joined by one balaclava-wearing band member. They rapped, sang, and danced to songs like "Bad Apples," "Police State," and every track from her 2016 EP xxx.

Political propaganda and animated kids' shows alike cull attention through bright colors, wacky slogans, and rapid movements. Last night, Tolokonnikova covered her body with bright blue leggings and rainbow-banded tube socks. She waved a flag that declared, "Pussy is the new dick." She jumped up and down to the tinny pop and punk beats that pounded from every speaker.

It's a fair bet that Tolokonnikova uses the uncanny to creep out her audience. In Adi Robertson's piece "What makes YouTube's surreal kids' videos so creepy?", she interviews Frank McAndrew, a Knox College psychology professor who studies creepiness. He describes the feeling as "a response to ambiguity." And at last night's show, ambiguity hit the Turf Club hard, as a barrage of surreal projections -- from animated, twirling handguns to a faux-Dance Dance Revolution battle -- bathed the backdrop, and the band members. It flashed by way too fast to process, leaving a distinctly unsettling wake.

Ambiguity, disruption, and the unexpected are our daily bread. But unlike technological disruption, where the most successful (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg) see their capital swell, Pussy Riot's action aimed to startle us into doing something for our community. Pree-Stinson asked that the audience "check their own bullshit." Franklin implored us to talk with our representatives outside of protests. (Keep attending those protests, he said. But make time to visit the "dusty" Capitol and nearby buildings to meet with reps in person.) Pussy Riot fans can also honor Tolokonnikova's history of reading in prison by donating their time to the Women's Prison Book Project, a book donation program that runs out of Boneshaker Books (2002 23rd Avenue South, Minneapolis) on Sundays from 12-3 p.m.

On a global scale, Tolokonnikova helps run an independent, mostly Russian-language news site called MediaZona. As NPR podcast Rough Translation reports, Ukraine had its own Russian-influenced bout with "fake news" before the U.S. ever did. The difference is that Russian journalists are often imprisoned and killed for reporting the truth. When a MediaZona donation bucket went around last night, hands everywhere tossed in cash, an offertory to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's hope and the bravery of those who risk their lives and upset expectations for change.

Susan Andrews contributed to this article.

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13 Photos

  • Samantha Pree-Stinson reads a speech before Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Samantha Pree-Stinson reads a speech before Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Fists raised before Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Fists raised during Samantha Pree-Stinson's pre-Pussy Riot speech at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Tommy Franklin at the Turf Club
    'Weapon of Choice' host Tommy Franklin interviews Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova answers Tommy Franklin's questions at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova waves a flag that reads, "Pussy is the new dick" during her set at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)
  • Pussy Riot at the Turf Club
    Pussy Riot at the Turf Club (Emmet Kowler for MPR)