MADISON, Wis. -- Guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney are perfect onstage foils.
Brownstein pogos and spins while Tucker keeps mostly still, as if entranced by the music. Add in Janet Weiss' straightforward drumming and the combination goes right through your soul.
Though the group's two-guitar approach is strong on record, it's fatter and more viscerally effective in the live setting, thanks to Weiss' backbeats, which add balance to an already-solid foundation.
In concert Monday night at University of Wisconsin's Union South, the Olympia, Wash.-based trio blasted out such favorites as "Dig Me Out" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" (RealAudio excerpt) with as much intensity as if they were brand new.
What's more, Sleater-Kinney delivered a handful of new songs with as much confidence as if they'd been playing them for years.
Sleater-Kinney have been pinned with all sorts of badges -- punk, post-punk, riot grrrl, feminist, critics' darlings. For this stop on their two-week Midwestern tour, the band embraced those labels and also blew them all away. When it comes right down to it, the group just plain rocks.
Gender politics always play a part in a Sleater-Kinney show, and the band is clearly heroic to many of their mostly young, female fans. This concert was even more overtly political than most. Sponsored by the college's Women's Center, Young Feminist Task Force and Ten Percent Society, the bill -- also featuring fellow Olympia residents the Need as the opening act -- was the first in a "Herstory Music Series."
Both bands seemed to take Pete Townshend's advice to heart. The Who guitarist contends that rock music won't solve all your problems, but it will let you dance all over them for a while.
Clearly, most in the all-ages crowd were there for Sleater-Kinney, and the band didn't disappoint. The trio has tightened its live sound considerably over the past few years, giving its punk energy even stronger instrumental-support.
The new material sounds more fluid than the older songs, the nervous new-wave energy replaced by a subtler sort of power. Tucker and Brownstein's guitar lines on "Get Up" come in and out of phase to create a mesmerizing, trippy effect, for instance, and the vocals are less prone to shouting.
As well-received as the new songs were, it was the older stuff that really got the crowd jumping.
On the hope-against-hope love-song "One More Hour" (RealAudio excerpt), Tucker's chiming guitar-notes provided sweet counterpoint to Brownstein's chording, while "Words and Guitar" (RealAudio excerpt) ended the regular set in rousing battle-cry fashion.
For an encore, the band followed another new song (the titles were never announced) with "Call the Doctor" (RealAudio excerpt), in which both guitarists locked into raging, in-sync power-chords.
Throughout the show, Tucker's voice was in fine form. It was even more powerful than on record. "It's really unreal, isn't it?" audience-member Doug Woycechowsky said about her singing, clearly amazed at Tucker's ability to belt out the high notes and stay on key. "They're really on tonight."
Audience-member Beth Derenne, 19, liked the new songs, but said it was hard for her to really get into them because she couldn't understand the words.
"The music's great," she said. "But it's the lyrics that really make you go" -- at which point she fell to her knees and triumphantly raised her fists in the air.
Need singer/drummer Rachel Carns honored and poked playful fun at the serious theme of the concert during the duo's set when she asked the crowd if anyone had any announcements.
"Is anyone being oppressed?" she asked with a smile. "I'm oppressed. But that doesn't stop me from being in a rock 'n' roll band."
Thanks to a basic, guitar-and-drums approach, the Need's live show was harder-rocking than their debut album's more-electronic sound. After writing the setlist on her forearm with a magic marker, Carns picked up her mallets, stood over her kit and began pounding out "Majesty," wherein she and guitarist Radio Sloan went through two tempo-changes.
"The Night Came Down" featured an almost-poppy chorus over stop-start beats, while Sloan began "Rim Me Isabella" (RealAudio excerpt) with some guitar riffing that called to mind the heavy-metal mania of Black Sabbath. The song's frank lesbian-sexuality was given a new twist by Sloan's playful approach, which included a bit of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" in the middle.
Carns is originally from a small town about two hours north of Madison, and her parents and grandmother drove in for the show.
"I don't pretend to understand the music, but she sure is a good drummer," said her obviously proud dad, Richard Carns. "Next time, Sleater-Kinney will be opening for them."
Carns' grandma, Rosie Hemphorn, said she was a country-music fanatic but that she thought her granddaughter's band was great. She added that the show reminded her of when she went to teen hops in the 1950s.
Though most in the audience were unfamiliar with the Need, the duo quickly won the crowd over with its unique instrumental approach.
"I like the rhythm, because it's not the normal drumbeats," said Shirra Collins, who had seen the band for the first time the night before in Chicago.