OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Sleater-Kinney brought it all back home Sunday night.
To begin their "The Hot Rock Tour," the punk trio, now based in Portland, Ore., returned to their home town to play a new teen club called Liquid -- just a few miles from Sleater-Kinney Road, which gave the band its name.
"I'm really excited to be playing here," said singer/guitarist Corin Tucker, bundling herself in a warm coat to fight off the Northwestern chill, following the group's early-evening sound check. The band's new album, The Hot Rock, will be released Tuesday (Feb.23).
The Olympia show kicked off a five-week U. S. tour. "I'm ready to play this show and then go on the road," drummer Janet Weiss said as she snapped photos of her bandmates and their friends with a camera that produces miniature Polaroid-type pics.
At a time when the upper regions of the charts are filled with hip-hop artists, teenybopper pop stars and soundtracks, Sleater-Kinney are ignoring all trends and delivering epic, meaningful rock 'n' roll. They've won an international grassroots following.
In Olympia, which is about an hour south of Seattle and is home to their label, Kill Rock Stars, they packed the 600-capacity club with the kind of eclectic crowd that first turned out for punk shows more than two decades ago.
Young girls with nose piercings danced next to goateed young men. There were dudes with shaved heads and dudes with hair down their backs. Butch women and hippie chicks. A man who looked to be in his late 40s told his friend he saw the first heavy-metal band, Blue Cheer, in the '60s.
Before the show, Sleater-Kinney hung out with their manager at the merchandise table, signing vinyl and CD versions of the new album for a dozen or so fans.
"Sign this -- I'm going to give it to my history teacher," one young woman said.
"I'm gonna write, 'Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it," laughed singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein.
Sleater-Kinney took the stage after 11 p.m. -- following sets by Popular Music, Sarah Dougher and Unwound -- and launched into "Start Together" (RealAudio excerpt), the revelatory opening track of the new album.
"If you want me -- it's changing," Tucker sang. "If you want -- everything's changing."
Tucker sang the song Sunday as a challenge. The best relationships evolve and Tucker knows that. In "Start Together," she tells a lover that if the relationship is to last, he or she must be willing to accept that things will be different. "If you want -- the sky would open up/ If you want -- your eyes could open up," she sang.
The song is a challenge to the group's fans. For Sleater-Kinney are changing, too. They're not the riot-grrrl punks they once were. Their sound is becoming more sophisticated. There are quiet songs on the new album, and one with a jazzy feel.
The interaction between Tucker and Brownstein is a major part of nearly every new song. They overlap vocals and guitar parts that sometimes clash and sometimes blend, creating tension and release in song after song.
Tucker, in an early-'60s-style dress and white stockings, sporting shoulder-length hair, looked like a rock 'n' roll Jackie O. "I'm really excited to play all the new, new songs," she said before Sleater-Kinney played "The End of You" (RealAudio excerpt), a particularly complex number that finds Tucker rejecting the rock-star role that's been thrust on the band: "I'm not the captain/ I am just another fan."
The song also details the group's rejection of the corporate music industry. "The first beast that will appear/ Will entice us with money and fame/ If you listen long enough/ You'll forget there's anything else," she sang. "Tie me to the greater things/ The people that I love."
At one point there was a disruption in the audience. "Is there a problem going on over there?" Brownstein asked. "You guys have it under control?"
"We want to dance or something," shouted a young man. "You guys play such great music."
"I think there's a dance you can do -- up and down kinda," Brownstein answered, and the audience laughed with her.
Brownstein appears to love to pogo. At times during the set the music seemed to hit her so hard that she couldn't help but spontaneously bounce up and down.
Along with much of the new album, the band burned through such older material
as "Turn It On" and "Little Babies," both from Dig Me Out (1997).
They ended with "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" (RealAudio excerpt) from Call the Doctor (1996), then let the crowd bring them back for encores of Dig Me Out's "Not What You Want" ("Saw Johnny at the store/ I said get your car let's hit the road") and "Words and Guitar" ("I like it/ Way way too loud").
Early Sunday afternoon, I asked the cashier at the Spar restaurant (just down the street from the Liquid) what people in Olympia think of the group.
"You know you're never a prophet in your home town," she said. "People here went to school with those girls."
I have the feeling "those girls" will get a kick out of that.