The center holds just fine for Corin and Carrie as they bring S-K Mach 3 to the Jet City
Sleater-Kinney ended their US tour on a high note, with a two-night stand on November 23 and 24 n Seattle, that showed the group — or, more specifically, guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker — in fine, fierce, fighting form.
But it was a different Sleater-Kinney. And not just because there was a new drummer, with Angie Boylan replacing the departed Janet Weiss. Katie Harkin, also returned as touring guitarist/keyboardist/percussionist/backing vocalist, and there was a new fifth member, Toko Yasuda, on keyboards and backing vocals.
But the main difference was in presentation. This was a show with the highest level of production that Sleater-Kinney has ever had. For the first time, it was a performance that was better experienced from a distance; from, say, five or six rows back (if there had been any rows on the main floor), instead of smack-dab in the middle down front, where the Sleater-Kinney faithful were nonetheless clustered.
I myself was down front for the first show, everyone packed in so tightly that security passed out free bottles of water to cool our overheated bodies (thank you!). But on night two, I sat in the seats set up at the rear of the main floor, and that’s when the show really made sense. For you needed to be further back to order take in the expanse of the set and get the full impact of the lighting design.
VIDEO: Sleater-Kinney perform “Jumpers” in Oakland, CA 11/16/19
The set featured what appeared to be five large doorways at the rear of the stage, each framing an image (a sinister, sharp-tongued fox; grasping hands reaching upwards). A number of long, thin lights, like Star Wars light sabers, were planted into the floor, alternately flashing or casting a luminescent glow. The show opened with the metallic, mechanical clanking of “The Center Won’t Hold” (the title track of the band’s latest album) and when the song exploded in volume toward the end, now matched by lighting that pulsed with strobe-like intensity, it became clear that “Sleater-Kinney In Concert” was going to be as much of a visual experience as an auditory one.
The band performed every track from The Center Won’t Hold, and the songs proved to be even more powerful in live performance. There were older songs mixed too, which underscored another difference. With the newer material sounding more processed, the older numbers became more organic; it was like a contrast between the coldness of digital, and the warmth of analogue.
There was evident fondness for the earlier fare, with applause breaking out when older favorites were played; to these ears, it felt like “Words and Guitar,” only played on the second night, got the biggest response of any song the band performed. But the band also tended to race through some of these numbers, making “One More Hour” sound oddly upbeat for a song about a break up, and “Get Up” (only performed on the second night), likewise losing some of its flavor when taken at a brisk clip. And the band was so quick to leap out of the gate on “Youth Decay” (another song only performed on the second night), that Tucker stumbled over the opening, forcing the group to start it again.
There were moments of great, giddy pleasure too, watching Brownstein and Tucker jumping up and down in time to the pounding beat of the music. This was especially the case when the band dug into songs from 2005’s The Woods. “Jumpers” raged every night, while “The Fox” has never sounded so dominatingly heavy. During “What’s Mine is Yours,” the backing band dropped out at one point leaving Brownstein and Tucker trading guitar licks in dueling solos. And a scorching “Entertainment” brought the main set to a close.
The second night featured a looser set, Brownstein windmilling her arm with more gusto, holding her guitar aloft in triumph, even laying on the floor at one point. But both nights saw the debut of a new song, “Animal.” The lyric video doesn’t do the number nearly enough justice; it’s easily ten times more energized when performed live (Tucker didn’t play the guitar when she sang, the better to throw her whole body into the song). Tucker also claimed the show’s most moving moment, opening the encore with “Broken,” a song partially inspired by Dr. Christine Ford’s testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, to the sole accompaniment of Brownstein on keyboard (when Tucker raised her fist, audience members also raised theirs in solidarity). It all wrapped up with the invigorating “Dig Me Out,” the title track of the 1997 album that really brought the band to national attention (on the last night they prefaced the song with a bit of “Call the Doctor” as well).
Through all the changes the subsequent two decades have brought, Sleater-Kinney remains as potent, and as powerful, as ever.
VIDEO: Sleater-Kinney live at the Palace Theatre