Sleater-Kinney Dance This Mess Around

Carrie Brownstein danced and sang while swinging her Gibson SG guitar.

Only a band brimming with confidence walks onstage and bangs out

its four best songs before diving into anything else. Imagine the Stones in '66

opening their set with "Paint It Black," "Under My Thumb," "Satisfaction," and

"Get Off Of My Cloud."

Sleater-Kinney pulled off an equivalent feat Sunday

night (May 18) at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat, opening up with four numbers,

each of which had every right to be saved for an encore: from "I Wanna Be Your

Joey Ramone" they leapt into "Dig Me Out" (the title track of their latest

album); from there they leaned into "Little Babies" and then on to "Call The

Doctor" (the title track from their acclaimed 1996 release).

These songs

encapsulate everything that is Sleater-Kinney: the ambition, the humor, the

power, the pain, the sensuality. And of course, the confidence. But then, why

shouldn't the band be overflowing with conviction right now? Call The

Doctor, was touted by many as one of the best releases of 1996 (#3 on the

Village Voice's 1996 Pazz & Jop critic's poll), and they've outdone even

that achievement with this year's Dig Me Out.

Now that's not to say

that the show's opening was flawless. The band was late getting into D.C. and

had to forego their soundcheck. Thus when "Joey Ramone" began, singer Corin

Tucker was almost inaudible for those in the back of the club. It was only when

Carrie Brownstein kicked in with her hiccup accompaniment that the tune

registered with distant ears.

But, as some contend, all things happen for

a reason...



Tucker's subsonic vocals served as a portent of the band's

entire 45 minute show, during which Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss

underscored their cardinal roles in driving Sleater-Kinney. Not that anyone

who's heard the band members speak of one another would ever doubt such those

roles, but Tucker's voice serves as such a benchmark for the Sleater sound,

that one might be liable to saddle her with too much responsibility in creating

the band's dynamic.

At the Black Cat, Tucker took a back seat (as much of a

back seat as anyone in this quintessentially democratic band could) to

Brownstein's and Weiss' utter command of their instruments. As if her bedrock

rock 'n' roll drumming weren't sufficient proof of her indispensable position

in S-K, Weiss symbolically drove the point home by counting off damn near each

one of the 15 songs in the set. Moreover, because her kit is unfettered by

excess toms and cymbals, the entire upper half was visible as she played.

Though she does not stand especially tall, Weiss appeared to sit well above her

set, adding to the impression of authority she generated with her

chops.

Meanwhile, Brownstein danced and sang while swinging her Gibson SG

guitar as if its neck were that of some beast that she could throw to ground

without batting an eye. She and Weiss conjured nothing so much as the image of

the master carpenter: fully respectful of the inherent power in their tools,

yet unquestionably capable of dictating how that power would be yielded. It may

be an unfair generalization to assert that too many punk bands continue to

treat their instruments as novelties, but watching Brownstein and Weiss

practice their art with reverential authority was breathtaking, and it

suggested a vacuum in the current punk arena.

Brownstein in particular

draws a distinction between studio and live performances, which surely

contributed to the successful concert rendering of songs that were missing

studio ingredients (such of keyboards). That said, the songs remained largely

faithful to their versions on wax. The exception here was Dig Me Out's

"One More Hour." In the club setting, the song's usually delicate chorus was

supercharged both by Weiss' deep snare and Brownstein's thick guitar chords.

Together they transformed the number from a wailing lament about leaving into

an uncomfortable directive to hightail it out of town this instant. While the

song was not as overwhelmingly effective as it is on Dig Me Out, it was

nonetheless powerful, purposeful, and intriguing.

For such an overall

amazing display, one might have expected the audience to go more than a little

crazy, but most folks remained relatively still throughout the show. Perhaps

they were spellbound; perhaps they were adhering to punk rock's dance phobia.

Whatever the cause, only the front eighth of the room got down for the

infectious "Little Babies." More people loosened up for "Turn It On" which

Brownstein intro'd with the straight-up proclamation, "This is a dance song."

One eager kid took that remark as incentive to claim a piece of the side

stage for himself. Once there, he made the space his own while at the same time

deferring to the band and allowing the audience to share in his excitement.

When the band returned for an encore, the anonymous dancer did the same,

but the moment for both had already been drained. Sleater-Kinney likes to keep

their sets short, and would have done well to let their show end on the

incredible set closer "Words + Guitar." Of course, the fiery evening they

provided compensated a hundred fold for a forced reprise. Would that every band

had that kind of storm to equal with its encore.