Austin L. Ray
Anyone who asserts that women don’t rock as hard as men is just being patently ridiculous. Or maybe they haven’t experienced Sleater-Kinney in concert.
Before the show, my girlfriend and I sat at nearby Mexican restaurant El Myr, devouring some of the best burritos ever created, swigging Pabst Blue Ribbon from 20 oz. cans and basking in the well-picked jukebox selections pumping from the speakers. The songs were impeccable—tracks by Slint, Richard Hell, Joy Division and Roy Orbison. All fantastic artists, granted, but also all male.
Of course, the restaurant wasn’t at fault. In all likelihood, its jukebox featured many prominent women rockers; they just weren’t playing while I waited to see one of today’s most exciting rock ’n’ roll bands. But it made me wonder: why are female rock bands so often relegated to the “they’re girls and they’re great” category? Even the fact that I’m making such a big deal out of this in a review should be taken to task. Perhaps the most direct road to reform is to stop referring to bands like Sleater-Kinney with modifiers like “female” or “grrrl” and just start calling them what they are—rock bands.
Following this existential jukebox dilemma, we squeezed our way into the crowded Variety Playhouse moments before the band walked onstage. But when Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss started playing, something seemed amiss. Tucker’s singing sounded strained at first (perhaps a cold?), each of the first few songs testing the limit of what her vocals could or would do this evening. Before long, however, she sounded like the powerhouse she is on record. Chill-inducing, epic and undeniably powerful, her vocal presence was downright overwhelming on the bitingly sarcastic “Modern Girl” and post-9/11 reflection “Faraway.”
Brownstein, the group’s quintessential rock star, summoned the gods with her guitar work. Evoking behemoths like Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend, her decidedly don’t-give-a-shit swagger and showmanship was the highlight of the night. Her solos were especially impressive, including the massive showstopper that connected “Let’s Call it Love” and “Night Light,” the last two songs on the band’s latest, The Woods. To this day, she’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen perform, full stop.
Holding down the fray was Janet Weiss, who, at one point, played harmonica while (wo)manning the kit. Although Weiss tends to get less attention than her two partners in rock, it’d be foolish to ignore her importance to the group—her background vocals are a necessity and her drumming serves as the entire rhythm section (Sleater-Kinney is sans bass, after all). Perhaps it’s unsurprising how many other bands Weiss has lent her talent to over the years. When you’re this great of a drummer, you have to spread that beat around.
Closing the night were a couple interesting choices—a cover of Danzig’s “Mother” and S-K fan favorite, “Dig Me Out.” The former, though perhaps a little uninspired, was a trip to say the least. Hearing Tucker belt the words to the mid-’90s MTV Buzz Bin hit (specifically, “Gonna take your daughter out tonight / Gonna show her my world”), I couldn’t help but return to my original thoughts from the beginning of the night. Was Tucker semi-ironically shutting down gender criticism with one fell swoop of a cover song? Perhaps. But I didn’t have time to ponder the implications, because as the band launched into “Dig Me Out,” and I watched a sea of people freaking out, thrusting their hands into the air, I remembered that Sleater-Kinney is a Rock Band, no modifier necessary. And a damned good one at that.