Photo Credit: Cori Taratoot
Photo Credit: Cori Taratoot
In the top left-hand corner of the United States, Sleater-Kinney is roots music. And tonight in Portland Oregon, the trio is throwing a 21st century rock ‘n’ roll hoedown. Swap Earl Scrugg’s banjo for Carrie Brownstein’s Gibson SG electric guitar, Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodel for Corin Tucker’s power shriek, the washboard for the percussive monster known as Ms. Janet Weiss . . . it’s an electrified dark holler for dark times. This same power combo that came from the Olympia Washington cluster of “riot-grrl” acts is now, more than ever, part of our cultural landscape. Sleater-Kinney has transcended the labels and the categorizations, without losing sight of their original motivation for playing music: Empowerment. Expression. Power. Safety. Sleater-Kinney is more relevant than they have ever been. With all three members of the band now bona fide residents of Portland (six records on the shelf and a rapturous fanbase helps, too), Sleater-Kinney consistently sells out two nights at medium-sized venues. Tonight we’re at the Crystal Ballroom, the city’s esteemed haunted grandmother of stages. The audience is a strange mix of hipsters and hippies, graying parents and punked-out high school kids, working-class dykes and 30-something indie-rock couples. That the audience bridges generational gaps and class chasms is a direct result of the band’s loud and active politics, of their brash and brave utilization of the bully pulpit so under-utilized by most indie rock artists. Sleater-Kinney tends to their audience like family — overheated fans can count on feeling safe should their surroundings intensify. The band consistently reminds everyone to respect each other’s physical space, to drink water, and to dance and shout as loudly and as violently as you need to. The girls are looking out for each other — and for you. Tonight, Janet Weiss is an uber-drummer working double-duty. Her other gig, the genius known as Quasi, is warming the stage up. The two-piece is a local favorite, a critical darling (mostly) left untouched by the mainstream press. The music seems to erupt from the boiling blood of frontman Sam Coomes. On-stage, Coomes is wearing a “No War” T-shirt. It’s the first indication that tonight is no out-of-mind, out-of-sight evening; it’s a night of unapologetic politicized rants. We’re in the presence of rockers unafraid to be heard against a backdrop of national politicians (on the left andright) bashing voices of dissent and intellectual curiosity. Coomes’ voice recalls Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne in certain moments, Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett in others. The material from 1998’s Featuring “Birds” shines live, as do songs from Coomes’ latest side project — Blues Goblins . At one point Weiss leaves the drumkit for Coomes’ keyboards, and a tired smile passes between them. Quasi’s music bears the mark of a long road taken together, of weary truth-telling warriors. Some people can’t stand the shrill voice of Hazel Dickens, just like some people can’t get past the anti-pop vocals of Brownstein & Tucker. Harmony is not found easily in a Sleater-Kinney song, and tonight is no exception. There are moments, though. Auroral “A” chords. Optimistic choruses triple-dipped in honeyed vocal layerings. The last album, One Beat, presents a 1960s psychedelic garage band element to the Sleater-Kinney mix. Watch closely though: those cheery sonic tones are juxtaposed against the most political lyrics to come out of indie-rock post 9/11.
Hey look it’s time to pledge allegiance
Oh god I love my dirty Uncle Sam
Our country’s marching to the beat now
And we must learn to step in time
Where is the questioning?
Where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
— “Combat Rock” (One Beat, Kill Rock Stars 2002)
Sleater-Kinney is infuriated with the way things are. For a lot of people, having a safe place to express that rage is the difference between life and death. And the band knows it; they haven’t said as much tonight, but music seems to have saved their lives. Sleater-Kinney displays a humility toward themselves, and a love for each other and their audience, that cannot be contained from their places on stage. The guitars play off of each other with both calculation and intimate ease; the vocals are jagged counterpoints, one voice never stealing the attention from the other. Tonight the songs from One Beat are as welcomed as the earlier Dig Me Out material. The band seems happy, mostly free from technical gremlins and audience dramatics. The springed dance floor bounces underneath us, as Brownstein picks out the opening lick to Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” to close the set. And we are all acutely aware of what the angry gleam in her eye is about as she sings:
Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they’re red, white and blue
And when the band plays “Hail to the Chief”
They point the cannon right at you
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no senator’s son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one
Some of us are angry, too. Some of us aren’t. But there’s a certain comfort in understanding the inner landscape of the artists we admire. There’s some kind of solace in knowing where our heroes come from, and how they see the world. Peter Guralnick nails it in his biography, Lost Highway, when he talks of the legacy left by America’s early country-bluesmen: ”Oh, there may have been ‘stars,’ but the stars were local heroes, heroes who had developed a widely admired skill to a greater degree than any other member of the community. Demographics didn’t enter into it, because you were playing for friends, neighbors, fellow workers . . .” Sleater-Kinney are our front-porch punk-rock fingerpicking heroes, screeching sirens howling from that early place where we all found each other. They seem to like coming home, and we like having ’em.