By David M. Goldstein | 10 March 2015
My wife and I have been to several Sleater-Kinney shows together. The best was easily in the first week of July in 2003 at Southpaw, a sadly defunct venue in the stroller-centric Park Slope section of Brooklyn that has since met its inevitable fate by turning into a kiddie gym. It was a last minute gig at a venue a quarter of the size of the ones they were headlining at that point; a breather the night before opening for Pearl Jam at Madison Square Garden. The venue was jam packed and the setlist a fan-centric deep dive—Carrie Brownstein foreshadowed her considerable comedic chops by telling the audience how it’s difficult enough to play empty arenas without people two-fisting hot dogs in the front row, and apologizing for not playing “The Hot Rock” much because “eh, it’s too hard.”
The worst, relatively speaking, was three years later at the considerably larger Webster Hall in Manhattan. Sleater-Kinney caved in America’s skulls by releasing the Dave Friddman-aided, Zeppelin-esque fuzz monster The Woods in May of 2005, and proceeded to announce their hiatus in early 2006, with the ensuing summer tour dates amounting to a farewell tour. Everything at that show felt slightly off; the AC was broken and the venue was positively sweltering, and there was a boom crane circling the stage for the entire night in the name of a live DVD that has yet to see the light of day (this also necessitated leaving the house lights on all night). The tempos seemed slower than usual and stage banter was non-existent; the band seemed legitimately nervous. Though the farthest thing from a trainwreck, it’s not how I had hoped to remember their last gasp.
And generally, when one’s favorite band calls it a day, you’re supposed to be sad. Funny then how neither myself, nor my wife felt much of anything upon Sleater-Kinney’s dissolution. They had an incredible seven album run, filled us with joy, and went out on top. How on Earth were they supposed to top The Woods, anyway? That would have required back-pedaling, and they owed us nothing.
Of course it didn’t hurt that every member was visibly active in highly respectable side projects that only suffered from not being Sleater-Kinney. It’s not as if Janet Weiss was going to stop playing the drums any more than you or I would stop eating food, and she proceeded to helm the skins on the prog-rockiest of Stephen Malkmus solo records and eventually reunited with Brownstein on the now puny sounding Wild Flag album in 2011. And if you gleam anything from this article, make a beeline to the nearest used bin and/or Spotify device to immerse yourself in the second (the first is respectable if comparably less interesting) Corin Tucker Band album, which is raging and focused and criminally overlooked. It also features the incredible drumming of Unwound’s Sara Lund, of which it’s no slight to describe as the off-brand Janet Weiss. Last I checked, Carrie Brownstein is far better known for being a humorous TV personality than the individual responsible for the seven-minute guitar solo on Woods track “Let’s Call it Love,” which is a little like Michael Jordan going into the Hall of Fame for his baseball skills. But the Portlandia episode where Kyle MacLachlan plays the Mayor of Portland and is found hiding out in a roots reggae band and then is forced to reveal the “scandal” in an Eliot Spitzer-style press conference was fucking FUNNY.
They all stayed busy, they all continued to profess their love and respect for one another, and most of Sleater-Kinney’s fanbase got unconscionably excited for the Wild Flag album; showering it with the breathless praise once reserved for Sleater-Kinney. But No Cities to Love has been out for over a month now, and easily confirmed what all of us had basically assumed: that Wild Flag, the Corin Tucker Band, Janet Weiss’s other bands, and all Portlandia episodes without Kyle MacLachlan were a whole lot of Diet Coke; a barely passable substitution for The Real Thing clung to by a starved audience. Powerade versus Gatorade. Boston Market Gravy versus KFC Gravy.
So when it was announced that Sleater-Kinney scheduled an NYC show on February 26th, we booked a babysitter four months in advance. Heck, we’d even clench our teeth and willingly travel to Terminal 5, a boxy, perpetually overcrowded shithole with poor sound, bad sightlines, and underwhelming beer. It’s easily the worst place to see music on the east coast, and I keep waiting for a proactive band to actively boycott it. But even when forced into “side-view in front of the bar purgatory” on account of our unwillingness to arrive right when the doors opened, the wife and I still concurred that unlike the 2006 Webster Hall gig, this concert provided the desired effect: namely, the feeling of euphoria that leaves one wondering why they spend any money on bands not named Sleater-Kinney.
Whatever fire had been absent in 2006 has been restored in spades. Clearly this was a band with unfinished business, reflected in Carrie Brownstein’s frequent employment of guitar windmills and onstage kicking, not to mention synchronized dance moves with touring musician Katie Harkin on new album standout “Surface Envy.” Played early in the set, the latter song also found Janet Weiss attempting to answer the age-old question of “just exactly how hard is it possible to hit the skins?” With her flying bangs and seemingly over-sized drumsticks, she’s the real life version of Tommy Chong’s superhero drumming antics from the infamous Rock Fight scene in Up in Smoke (1978): possessed, muscular, flailing at drums both real and imagined. And there was no need to play old songs in lower keys relative to the originals—in addition to holding down the low-end, Corin Tucker is still plenty capable of hitting every last note.
They played eight of No Cities to Love’s ten songs and nobody complained; Sleater-Kinney wasn’t about to waste their time or ours writing a new album unless it banged. Every album save their 1995 self-titled release and Call the Doctor (1996) was given varying degrees of air time. Both “Oh” and “Sympathy” from One Beat (2002) have aged rather nicely, and 1999’s The Hot Rock was showcased via “Start Together,” “Get Up,” and relative rarity “The End of You.” Further, they clearly know where their rock action bread is buttered by choosing to play four songs off of The Woods, which still sounds like it should have been the proper follow-up to Physical Graffiti (1975). Plus, there were real deal production values. This was the first time I had seen Sleater-Kinney armed with an actual light rig manned by somebody who clearly wasn’t hearing their songs for the first time, and they played in front of a huge backdrop best described as a rock climbing wall with papier-mâché squares that blew around via a wind machine at particularly intense intervals. The visuals fell just upon the right side of the line separating stupid from clever; it looked cool!
The placement of The Woods’s “Entertain” and “Jumpers” as two of the final three songs in the main set was no accident. They’re arguably the two most aggressive songs on Sleater-Kinney’s most aggressive album—the section on the former where the drums and guitars re-enter the fray prior to the final chorus amongst the most head bangingly cathartic five seconds of rock and roll in the past two decades. During the bridge on “Jumpers,” the musical equivalent of falling down a flight of stairs, I noticed several audience members jumping and pumping fists in the air, finally aware of what they’d been deprived of for the past nine years.
It’s actually a bit of a misnomer when I stated that my wife and I attended the aforementioned Southpaw Sleater-Kinney show “together”; we wouldn’t actually have our first date until 13 months later, but she has the stub to prove she was in the room, and her Sleater-Kinney fandom was one (of many) things to suggest to me she might be a keeper. Enjoyment of this band simply evinces good taste; as currently constructed they pack more onstage energy into a three-minute rock song than any active band. If it took nine years and a multitude of side projects for them to regain the desire to level entire city blocks with two guitars, a drum kit, and Corin Tucker’s banshee howl, then so be it. They made Terminal 5 tolerable. And when they give their everything onstage, they remain peerless.