It brings me great pleasure to report that Sleater-Kinney are a still a motherfucking all-destroying beast of a live band.
This was not a certainty. Last night, at Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival, Sleater-Kinney played their first show since the sudden, jarring, contentious exit of longtime drummer Janet Weiss. In quitting the band, Weiss hung a huge shadow over Sleater-Kinney’s new album The Center Won’t Hold — a radical departure drenched in hyper-processed electro-sheen, one that has been dividing fans since before any of us even got a chance to hear the entire thing.
Other than a Tonight Show performance in June — Weiss’ final time playing onstage with the band — last night was also Sleater-Kinney’s first show in nearly two years. And on top of all of that, the show itself was a scramble to even pull together — moved to a hulking and vaguely oppressive suburban live-music emporium after Hurricane Dorian sent rains to soak Raleigh and to make the picturesque outdoor downtown plaza an impossible place to have a show. Everything about last night’s context was rough.
Going into last night’s show, I was feeling a weird sort of resigned dread, like I was about to watch one of my all-time favorite bands take a spectacular nosedive. Sleater-Kinney had been announced as Hopscotch headliners months earlier, before Weiss left the band. Their tour won’t even be starting for a few weeks. They didn’t have much time to pull together a whole live lineup, to recapture the chemistry that always made them such a stunning show. And while it’s impressive that the Hopscotch planners found a last-minute substitute venue, the Ritz is a charmless, windowless brick of a building, one that feels like it used to be a furniture store or a Circuit City or some shit. (Future shows on the calendar include Tesla, Theory Of A Deadman, a Garth Brooks tribute band, Explosions In The Sky, Sum 41, and Rick Ross.) By the time I made it through sets from indie guitar-hero openers Snail Mail and Kurt Vile, I wanted out of there. This was an unlikely place for a triumphant comeback.
Sleater-Kinney pulled it the fuck off. They did it with a whole new setup, a whole new lineup, and a whole new album full of hit-or-miss songs — everything that could conceivably up the difficulty factor. These days, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker fill up the front of the stage, while the other three musicians stay on a riser in the back, in the shadows, clearly doing backup band duty. Sky Larkin’s Katie Harkin, who joined Sleater-Kinney as a touring multi-instrumentalist when they got back together for 2015’s No Cities To Love, was back on board. So was Toko Yasuda, another multi-instrumentalist, formerly of Enon and of St. Vincent’s live band. And the new drummer — the person given the impossible job of filling Janet Weiss’ shoes — was Angie Boylan, who has played with bands like Freezing Cold, Aye Nako, Little Lungs, and Cheeky.
Boylan did great! She played the shit out of those drums! Also, she was not Fred Armisen! (I was legitimately terrified that Armisen might get Weiss’ job, which would’ve been the weakest shit.) Because of the way the band is now constructed, the dynamic was completely changed. Sleater-Kinney is no longer an egalitarian three-woman wrecking crew. It’s three extremely capable musicians backing up the two women who started the band way the hell back in 1994, years before Weiss even came on board. But those two women are still galactic presences.
There’s this thing that has been happening at Sleater-Kinney shows for at least 20 years, since I first saw them at the Black Cat in Washington, DC when they were touring behind The Hot Rock. Carrie Brownstein, nervous and energetic and happy, will sort of bunny-hop up to the more serious and guarded Corin Tucker when neither of them is singing. Brownstein will be grinning huge, like she’s a six-year-old kid trying to convince her best friend to jump into the pool with her. Brownstein and Tucker will lock eyes at the center of the stage, their guitars jutting off in opposite directions, like they’re having some kind of private conversation in front of everyone. And when they spin off in opposite directions, they’re both smiling. It is the best shit. They are still doing this. It still makes me feel like I’m flying just to be in the room when it’s happening.
Last night’s set was heavy on new music; they’d been onstage for about 20 minutes before they got around to playing any songs from before 2015. Live, the new songs are loud — clearly meant to be played in venues like the Ritz, and in larger spaces. A lot of the band’s setup is now electronic; some of Angie Boylan’s drums are the sorts of octagonal synth-pads that I can’t imagine Janet Weiss playing. As on the album, not all of the new songs worked for me. But the best of those songs — “Hurry On Home,” “Love,” “The Dog/The Body” — absolutely hit as hard as you’d hope. And every time they dipped into their older music, it was absolutely thrilling. And even the stuff from No Cities To Love got huge reactions from the faithful who came out last night.
And Carrie Brownstein came to play. Tucker, whose voice is still titanic, took her time getting into the groove of the show, but she always has. Brownstein, on the other hand, was a glamorous fireball the entire time. Brownstein has spent decades building up a reserve of rock-star gestures — the Pete Townshend guitar-windmills, the David Lee Roth high-kicks — and she radiates more confidence with those moves than she ever used to show. She’s got some newer moves, too — lots of footwork, lots of side-to-side shimmys. I’m pretty sure she moonwalked at one point. She fully believes in this new version of Sleater-Kinney, and her charisma and energy were enough to convince me that I believe in it, too.
Last night was not the best Sleater-Kinney show I have ever seen. That would be an impossibly tall order. But it sent me out into the night buzzing with energy, just like every other Sleater-Kinney show I’ve ever seen. The things that were a bit awkward — the lack of mentions of Janet Weiss onstage, the lack of interplay with the touring members, the centrality of the new songs — would be a bit awkward for any band. And the things that were thrilling — the things that remain thrilling — were things that only Sleater-Kinney could do. So yeah. Good band. Go see them.