The crowd is riveted to the intensity of the performance; some barely moving as they watch the stage, almost reverent in their witness. Sleater-Kinney has walked out onto the ledge with us and back. Again.
Outside the 9:30 Club in D.C. on February 24—the first of Sleater-Kinney’s two sold-out nights—I wait in the bitter cold for the doors to open. A young woman carrying a backpack stops in front of me.
“Do you have an extra ticket for the show?”
Even when I tell her that I don’t, she looks undaunted.
As she moves on, I call out to her: “I hope you get in.”
She smiles determined.
She conveys a sense of purpose: she's focused, empowered.
In January, Sleater-Kinney released No Cities to Love, their first album in almost ten years, an incendiary work which has been well-received by critics as well as fans.
Guitarist/ singer Corin Tucker, guitarist/ singer Carrie Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss have completed the first half of a North American tour and are scheduled for European shows in March. On tour with them is Katie Harkin (of Sky Larkin) who adds guitar, keyboards, and percussion. The band continues with U.S. dates in April and May.
For these reasons, it makes sense that NPR is broadcasting the 24 February Sleater-Kinney concert, held at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club, on a live web stream. The presence of these cameras also indicates a seismic shift for Sleater-Kinney as they continue to move towards a broader audience.
This is where they should be. And yes, it’s about time we had a professionally filmed Sleater-Kinney concert in its entirety. However, there have always been other cameras.
YouTube can take you from Sleater-Kinney’s early days of playing record stores in the '90s to their last concert in Portland in 2006. Audiences for the No Cities to Love Tour have also been posting new Sleater-Kinney videos.
Of course, the quality varies. But the appeal of these videos is their rawness which mirrors the rawness onstage: the catharsis of emotion, the personal and political assertions of self. Recent videos of the No Cities to Love tour also reflect a more orchestrated show, one with an emphasis on stage lighting and design, wardrobe, even stage moves.
Visibility brings more expectations and more power. It’s not as simple as the old concern about “selling out”. We can and should have success. Instead, it’s about our relationship to success. How do we practice resistance if we find ourselves at the center instead of the periphery? Do we speak out even if no one else is going to? Or do we hold back?
Yet there’s always the hope that if there’s one band that can be successful and also speak truth to power, it’s Sleater-Kinney.
As the doors of the 9:30 Club open, fans gather near the stage or on the balconies. Liz DeCoster of Baltimore, 31, wasn’t sure whether No Cities to Love would “get you back to that place when you first loved a band.” However, the “Bury our Friends” video with Miranda July was enough to reassure her.
“I listen to the new album non-stop,” she says.
Four years ago, Tom Petza of Baltimore, 50, heard a song by the Corin Tucker Band on an indie radio station. He then discovered Brownstein and Weiss’ band Wild Flag. Only later did he arrive at Sleater-Kinney.
“They blew me away.”
Petza considers Sleater-Kinney to be one of the top five musicians/ bands of all time, alongside the Beatles, David Bowie, the Kinks, and Small Faces.
When Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods was released in 2005, Ben Kessler of D.C., 29, was a sophomore in college. “It wasn’t a good year,” he says. The Woods got him through it. “I turned to those songs.”
Opening act Lizzo takes the stage before Sleater-Kinney, infusing the 9:30 Club with high-energy hip-hop interspersed with her quick humor and incisive politics. At the end of her set, Lizzo asks the audience to raise the light of their cell phones for her “rock star moment,” and the 9:30 Club becomes ethereal in its brightness.
A bit later, Sleater-Kinney walks onto a dark stage, building anticipation before they break into the low guitar of “Price Tag”, a forceful song about income inequality that unearths the band’s political roots. Tucker’s voice exceeds expectations as it rises and falls, a study in contrasts, both tremulous and self-assured.
Throughout the show, Brownstein and Tucker’s voices and guitars fuse and separate, taking on epic qualities in the metrical pulse of “Bury Our Friends” and the dissonance of “No Anthems”. Weiss’ drums and percussion create a unifying momentum, a rhythmic encompassing call to action, particularly on “Fangless” and “Surface Envy”. Her kinetic energy shakes the walls and floor by the stage; the beats take hold like a spiritual revival, compelling movement, demanding your presence.
As the audience calls out requests, Brownstein quips, “We’ll get to all those. We’re going to play 65 songs. But we only practiced 25.”
Sleater-Kinney covers 23 songs from six of their eight albums. The playing is notably tighter, particularly on music from The Woods, like “What’s Mine is Yours” and “Entertain”. There’s less improvisation; the guitars and drums are just as energetic and intense, but gone is the restless exploration. The overall sound is focused, self-aware.
There’s also more bliss. Everyone in the band smiles at each other throughout the night. Maybe the cameras make them appreciate how far they have come, and for what they have accomplished. Yet, at other times, the cameras seem to encourage the orchestrated aspects of the show, the rehearsed moves such as when Brownstein kneels in front of Tucker during “Words and Guitar”.
In contrast, during “Sympathy”, Tucker holds onto a high note as Brownstein watches with admiration. They have not lost their connection to spontaneity, to being in the moment as artists. This wasn’t for the cameras; it was for them.
However, the cameras are here, so maybe that’s why “Entertain” becomes an exorcism that could apply to any artistic genre: music, film, television, or literature. The song is a primal scream for art above artifice even as it admits to artifice. Brownstein flails her arms, twists her hair, and strikes the side of her head like a character in a Greek drama. She spins around the stage, holding up her guitar like an offering -- and it is.
The last song before the encore is “Jumpers,” and there’s an audible cry from the audience at the first sound of the frenetic chords. Another song of catharsis; this time, the subject-matter is societal pressure and suicide. The crowd is riveted to the intensity of the performance; some barely move as they watch the stage, almost reverent in their witness. Sleater-Kinney has walked out onto the ledge with us and back, again.
When they return for the encore, Brownstein places her head on Tucker’s shoulder during “Gimme Love” and “Dig Me Out”, and they lean their heads against each other in “Modern Girl”. Even if these particular moves are orchestrated, they are more powerful because they speak a new truth. Here, the rock postures of bravado are dismantled. Vulnerability becomes strength.
After it’s all over, the audience stays rooted.
There are too many of us to move at once. We may also be slow to leave because no one wants this to end. Almost an hour and a half of music; it went by fast.
“I love the way they can feed off each other’s energy,” says Connor J. Hogan of D.C., 26, whose former boyfriend introduced him to Sleater-Kinney’s music. “I didn’t get that off the albums. I got that from seeing them onstage.”
As the crowd at the 9:30 Club wanes, she walks towards the center of the room -- the young woman who had been looking for a ticket. I don’t know how or if she managed to see the show, but she’s smiling and euphoric, so I’m guessing she made it inside. She walks up to another young woman, puts her arms around her. They look elated.
Take away the cameras and the stage lights, and what you have is this determination, this euphoria. What you have is empowerment. What you have is Sleater-Kinney.
"What's Mine Is Yours"
"A New Wave"
"No Cities To Love"
"Words And Guitar"
"Bury Our Friends"
"Turn It On"
"Dig Me Out"