“San Francisco, don’t tell Portland,” Sleater-Kinney vocalist-guitarist Corin Tucker confided to a sold-out crowd, just a few songs into the first of two shows at the Masonic on May 2. “But you were the first city we fell for.”
Ah, I bet she tells that to all the metropolises sheltering the Northwestern combo, still one of the most powerful bands of its time -- punk, riot grrrl, however you dub your brand of rock ‘n’ roll fun. Cue “What’s Mine Is Yours,” off their 2005 release The Woods, an album that feels like a short lifetime ago even though it’s still recent history to this all-woman combo, back after an almost decade-long break of child rearing, touring with other bands, and Portlandia satire. “I’m still running,” wailed Tucker, as comical, anguished, ferocious expressions flickered across her pale, round, pretty face. “I’m still running.”
Long may they run, judging from the night’s forward-thrust set list, which pulled mostly from their new album, No Cities to Love, and The Woods.
While much of the rest of the world spent the evening glued to an overhyped Mayweather-Pacquio fight, Sleater-Kinney delivered on their promise to "destroy a room with this love." And though guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein may have spent half of the last decade poking fun at alternaculture and the lifestyle of the archly hipster and locavore with Portlandia, there was little of that show’s irony in the house as Sleater-Kinney seemed seriously intent on rocking their fans' socks off.
The several thousand true believers at the Masonic arrived obviously starved for the trio’s breed of politicized punk and boldly feminist rock ‘n’ roll, now re-entering a landscape where Emma Watson, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé could scandalize their followers by owning that now-verboten so-called F-word. And so out they came from the trees for the last great band to come down their pike. The gang -- the one you picture displaced by S.F.’s high-speed gentrification -- was all here: graying '90s San Francisco anarcho-punks, coffee house sitters, zine scribblers, long-of-tooth baby dykes, battered-looking rabble-rousers, queercore crusties, twirly girls poured into plaid bustiers of yesteryear, and other unclassifiable happily fringe-dwelling eccentrics. The dream of the '90s was alive in San Francisco after all.
Sleater-Kinney returned the affection in front of a MOMA-style backdrop that, thanks to projections and a well-placed fan, at times resembled a granite mountain, a monolithic brick wall, or a waving field of fliers. The effect was poised somewhere between quietly held fantasy and the poetry of everyday urban reality, and subtly limned the ideas wafting through No Cities to Love. Metropolitan life, consumerism, fragmentation, and yes, First World problems, as well as, of course, one’s incoming mortality, as represented by the dead flowers on the LP cover -- borrowed, no doubt, from those ageless rockers from which S-K stole its title, the Rolling Stones.
“Price Tag,” the new album’s opener, and a cry against a capitalist treadmill, laid the groundwork by kicking off the set. “In the market / The kids are starving / They reach for the good stuff / Let’s stay off label / Just till we’re able / To save a little up,” Tucker hollered, contorting that still-formidable powerhouse of a voice. Throughout the set, she took it effortlessly from a whisper to a scream, biting off her words with small electrical storms of emotion, as Brownstein, clad in a naughty-schoolgirl miniskirt with a slash of red lipstick blazing across her lips, kicked, pogoed, and hopped to her left. The crowd roared when they faced each other to play, '70s arena-rock style, and tumbled to the floor one after the other.
As for drummer-vocalist Janet Weiss, her page-boy strands blown by the fan and arms bared for the work ahead, she proved herself to still be the secret weapon of the band, skipping effortlessly from sassy syncopation to martial machine music to, by the close, both harmonica-playing and time keeping, as touring guitarist and percussionist Katie Harkin filled out the newer songs’ overdubs.
“Surface Envy” sublimated its sheets of Sonic Youth-like distortion as it followed a shout-along “All Hands on the Bad One.” “No Cities to Love” and “Gimme Love,” accompanied by self-consciously melodramatic head rolls and outthrust hand gestures by Tucker, reached for the anthemic, while “No Anthems” and “A New Wave” made a case for sticking with the niche you rode in on.
Amid still-gleaming punk gems like “Youth Decay” and jammy tempters like “The Fox,” Sleater-Kinney sprinkled in its share of sing-alongs—from the choral “oh-whoa-whoa”’s of “Oh!” propelled by Weiss’s spunky, splashy drum figures to the nursery-rhyme infectiousness of “Little Babies” -- pacing the evening like the pros we know they are (though some fans will forever think of Tucker and Brownstein as the raw riot grrrls generating cheap thrills and early earaches as Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 at Bottom of the Hill).
So when the group took a break after an hour, only to come back a few minutes later for another 30 minutes, it was almost a surprise. Though the juxtaposition of activism and full-bore rock ‘n’ roll that came next was no shock, as Tucker introduced “Gimme Love” with a shout-out to women’s health care and Planned Parenthood (whose representatives wo-manned a booth in the Masonic lobby): “Gimme equality. Gimme respect.” Then, as if to hammer that home, the group tumbled into The Woods’ epic, 11-minute-plus orgy of Blue Cheer-like riffage and psychedelic boogie ecstasy, “Let’s Call It Love.” The climax saw Brownstein mounting the drum riser and raising her instrument in a single-guitar salute to caveman crunch before carefully disembarking for the final song, the folk-tinged “Modern Girl.”
Modern these girls are, much like other multihyphenate makers out there, carving out communities of their own, but one wonders, how relevant is their union: the rock band described more than a decade ago as The Best? Armed with their most recent music and this thundering reunion tour, Sleater-Kinney make a case for not going at all quietly into the good night.
Sleater-Kinney perform again on Sunday, May 3, 2015, at the Masonic in San Francisco. Tickets and information here.