Majestic Theater, Detroit, February 19, 2003
As Sleater-Kinney has matured from riot-punk youth rebellion to being the shock troops for intelligent Pacific Northwest punk rock music, the larger media cognoscenti (i.e., geeks like Rolling Stone) have recognized not only their talent, but also the fact that they’re women. Including the band in its “Women Who Rock” article of a few months ago probably had a few RS editors patting themselves on their backs. Yay! I’m so hip! When in fact, the move reeked of concession – Sure, we’ll give you S-K. As long as Ashanti and Shakira do the covershoot in their undies. Evidently PJ Harvey, Bjork, Kelly Hogan, and Chan Marshall’s schedules were filled to the brim. But really ever since 2000’s All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney has been on a collision course with this kind of widespread attention. And, ever true to their ideals, guitarists/vocalists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss haven’t let acclaim damage their agenda as a group confronting emotional, cultural, and political issues inside 3-minute blasts of punk rock.
Given all of this, Sleater-Kinney’s appearance Wednesday night at Detroit’s Majestic Theater was highly anticipated. The crowd was what you’d expect: miniaturized indie rockers who just found a stack of old Kill Rock Stars compilations in their older sibling’s steamer trunk; mid-range, college-age types with goofy eyewear; and plenty of girls holding hands. The Akron, Ohio duo Black Keys opened the show, warming up the stage with their brand of guitar vs. drums blues kudzu. While this formula can grow tired very quickly, Dan Auerbach’s ragged, bluesy voice was impressive enough to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, the Black Keys’ minimal equipment couldn’t reach the Majestic’s tall ceilings, and the band ended up sounding a little flat. A late-set cover of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” (which appears on The Big Come Up, the duo’s 2002 Alive release) sent up a few cheers, but it became obvious that the Black Keys belong in a basement club where the low ceilings would help their case.
After a break, Brownstein, Tucker, and Weiss took the stage. It doesn’t really matter that the trio doesn’t feature a bass player. Brownstein is an accomplished guitarist who intersects intricate lead parts with jagged shards of power chord glory, complete with a modified Townshend kick. Tucker usually takes the bottom end, steadily picking out a bass line of sorts on her Danelectro, weaving it into Brownstein’s sound to created one unit. Tucker’s voice has always been her true instrument. What was once a mildy irritating yowl (circa Heavens to Betsy, 1991) has developed into a distinctive force, one more than capable of conveying the anger and emotion that often bubbles over in Tucker’s lyrics. Behind this two-storm front is Janet Weiss, whose drumming, while deceptively simple, is plenty capable of holding down the rhythm section.
A large part of Sleater-Kinney’s success over the last few albums/years has been the emergence of Carrie Brownstein as a vocal foil to Corin Tucker’s blaring siren. This was made apparent early in Wednesday night’s set, when Brownstein’s lead turn on One Beat‘s “Oh!” [MP3 via KRS] was even more powerful in person than on record. With soothing harmonies from Weiss and Tucker, Brownstein’s sarcastic, New Wave-y voice gives you the sense that she’s sizing you up, only to eventually put you in your place. Which Brownstein then did. Apparently, the crowd onhand wasn’t bopping enough for her tastes. After a pause to tune, Brownstein asked whether anyone would like to hear an old classic. As the hoots and hollers subsided, she flashed a satisfied smile and said, “Okay, let’s play a brand new one.” It was a funny bit of banter, complete with a shave-and-a-haircut drum fill from Weiss. But the moment turned a bit ugly when the new song unfolded. An aggressive rocker, the song seemed to be about NOT liking Sleater-Kinney. Pointing at both Tucker and Weiss, Brownstein’s lyrics exhorted the audience. “DON’T look at Janet; she’s not entertaining,” the last word slurred and spit out, as if to ask what it even meant anymore. Taken with what came next, the song was more than a little prescient.
The set continued with apparent joy from most viewpoints. Covering material from One Beat, as well as All Hands and 1999’s Hot Rock, the show seemed to be progressing nicely. But something set Brownstein off again. A perfectly warranted diatribe against the current administration somehow transformed itself into an Ian MacKaye-style scolding of the audience, essentially for not being into the music on the same level S-K was. Brownstein went to say, in not so many words, we’re not up here for our health. It was a strange moment, and when coupled with the supposed subject matter of the earlier song, it could be said that Brownstein was railing against the perception of her band as just another alternative rock group, sharing space on the pages of Rolling Stone with other women rockers. It’s true that Sleater-Kinney has always promoted an agenda of sexual and cultural equality, with a healthy dose of political comment to boot. Indeed, the band still records for Kill Rock Stars, despite numerous opportunities for a big time pay day in the majors. But when you think about it, there’s something wrong with a Sleater-Kinney record coming out on any record label that doesn’t fit inside a two-bedroom apartment. And the very possibility that S-K would be good enough and smart enough that they’d receive big offers and find themselves surrounded by casual, non-manic fans seems to be, doggawnit, bothering Carrie Brownstein.
After a brief encore featuring some cool instrumental work, Sleater-Kinney was finished for the evening. There were no more tantrums, and Tucker smiled and waved on her way off the stage. But Brownstein simply let her SG’s strap slip off, and with a half-hearted wave of her arm, disappeared backstage. It’s hard to get a roomful of 1,000 people to do anything in unison. But if everyone’s in that room to listen to and enjoy a great rock and roll band, is it okay if just a few aren’t wholly engaged?
Check out Jeff Sabatini’s take on a S-K show, I’m No Rock and Roll Fun, from back in October, 2002. You can download MP3s of Sleater-Kinney’s Oh!, All Hands on the Bad One, and Words and Guitars (Live) via Epitonic. The Black Keys’ Heavy Soul (alternate version) and Busted are available from Alive Records.