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).
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
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
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.