Twenty-two years ago today, I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. It was at the Great American Music Hall, which held 600. Their most recent album was Dig Me Out, which was released more than a year earlier. (The Hot Rock, which was recorded a month before this concert, was released in February of '99. They played 5 songs from that album at the concert.)
They opened that night with "Heart Factory", thus becoming the first song I ever saw them play live. Here they are a few months before I saw them:
Here is some more S-K 1998 live:
Janet (sigh) Weiss with pigtails! The first 15 times I saw the band, Janet was the drummer. Alas, she was gone for last year's shows.
How long ago was 1998? Well, a month later we saw Dylan, Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams ... Dylan was 57, Morrison 52, and Lucinda a mere 45 (she is 5 months older than I am). It was the year of "The Rockafeller Skank" and Run Lola Run. France won the World Cup. And I wouldn't start this blog for four more years.
Here is the setlist for that first show: Heart Factory / Dig Me Out / Memorize Yr Lines / Call the Doctor / Banned from the End of the World / Turn It On / By the Time You're 25 / Joey Ramone / One More Hour / End of You / God is a Number / Little Babies / Get Up / Words & Guitar. Encores: Good Things / Be Yr Mama / Little Mouth
And here they are, the last time I saw them with Janet, New Year's Eve 2016/7:
This weekend I took in my 16th and 17th Sleater-Kinney concerts, the first ones without longtime drummer Janet Weiss. Since Weiss had played on their latest album, these concerts were the first real test of new drummer Angie Boylan. Katie Harkin, the guitar/keyboard/vocals 4th member who started touring with the band on their last tour, was back, along with Toko Yasuda, the new 5th member who performed some of the same things as did Harkin. Both were very good at filling out the sound of the band, but Boylan is the one people had their eyes on. She was just fine, and of course, why wouldn't she be? The one thing of note was that she was playing Janet's parts, that is, I didn't get a feel for what Boylan might add on her own, because she was mostly just replicating what Weiss had done on record. If Boylan sticks around, we'll get a better sense of what she brings. For now, no harm no foul.
What really stood out was how much Janet's absence turned Sleater-Kinney into a two-piece, Corin and Carrie with three backup musicians. While the two stars interacted as much as ever, there was little crossover into the Backup Three, and you realized how Janet was more than just a great drummer, she was an integral part of the band. Boylan could play Janet's licks, but S-K didn't really bother to replace Weiss as part of a trio. They just played like a duo, which is how they started, so I guess it wasn't that odd.
Other than that, there was nothing particularly new at these shows. Well, each night they played every song from the new album, but the key was still Corin's otherworldly vocals and Carrie's rock star charisma and idiosyncratic guitar work. I have never seen Carrie smile so much, and with her large mouth covered in red lipstick, those smiles were hard to miss. Both of them were having so much fun, and after reading Carrie's memoir and finding out how miserable she often was, it was something of a relief to know she has hopefully gotten past that.
Reviewing The Center Won't Hold, I wrote, "Ultimately, we may not know just how good The Center Won’t Hold is until later in Sleater-Kinney’s career. I want to see these new songs live, mixed in with older classics, and to see how they work with a new drummer. I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where 'I’m not sure I wanna go on at all' co-exists with 'Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end'." Now I've seen them live, and the best of the songs are already integrated firmly into the live set. To that extent, The Center Won't Hold is established as part of S-K history, no matter how different it sounds from their earlier albums. What I can't tell yet is how many of those new songs will still feel vital down the road, the way classics like "Jumpers" and "One More Hour" and "Entertain" and "Modern Girl" continue to resonate today. But that the band is this far along in their journey, and they are still relevant, is remarkable in the rock world.
They did me the favor of playing "Youth Decay" on Saturday ... I had been bugging them on Twitter to do so, not that I got their attention. It has always been my favorite Janet song, so for me, it was a real test of Angie Boylan, and again, she played the Janet part accurately. They were a bit more talkative the first night, and I especially appreciated Carrie's introduction to "Modern Girl" ... she noted that she wrote it when she was very depressed, and that it is a depressing song (the crucial line "My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day" points out, it should be obvious, that her life wasn't sunny, it was like a picture of sunny). She expressed surprise that some people use "Modern Girl" as a wedding song.
The major difference for me in the two shows was that I was on the floor the first night, but sitting in the balcony for Night Two. It had a much larger effect than I might have imagined. Being in the balcony placed a distance between us and the band. It's silly in a way ... it's not like the first night Corin and Carrie were looking directly at me, 2/3 of the way back on the floor, performing just for me. But there is something about being on the floor that connects you viscerally to the band, and that was absent in the balcony. I am used to sitting in balconies, especially as I get older. But, to cite the two artists I see most besides S-K, Bruce Springsteen and Pink bring the spectacle to their shows, and while I've been up close for both of them, the distance isn't a deal breaker ... Bruce has a great ability to turn an arena into a small club, and Pink is famous for flying around the arena so everyone at some point is "close". Sleater-Kinney offers none of that. Oh, they earned the warning we got entering the theater that strobe lights would be on display. But ultimately, their entire live act is focused on a one-on-one relationship to each of us that, no matter how silly it is, has an honest feel to it. And that silly honesty was lacking from the balcony.
I suppose the #1 thing I learned from this weekend is that I am too old for consecutive nights on the floor. I loved the first night, but I was very sore afterwards, and was thus very glad I was sitting for the second night. The balcony experience convinced me I want to be on the floor for Sleater-Kinney ... my creaking bones convinced me I'm no longer the young whippersnapper who could do consecutive nights on the floor.
Here they come again. This weekend, I will see Sleater-Kinney for the 16th and 17th time. No one whose name isn't Springsteen comes close.
I tend to remember dates by the events that accompanied them. We moved into this house in 1987, and I remember that because the Giants almost made the World Series. My daughter was born on January 15, 1978, the day after I saw the Sex Pistols, and I'm never quite sure if I remember the Sex Pistols' date because of my daughter, or the other way around.
My wife and I go way back with Bruce Springsteen, seeing him for the first time in 1975. It's a way of marking the passage of time ... remember that first concert? Remember when we were in the third row? Remember when we followed him up and down the west coast? Remember when he turned up as a surprise guest at a Gary U.S. Bonds show? Remember, remember, remember? (For the obsessive-compulsive among you, the years for those particular memories were 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.) It's understood that our experiences with Bruce have covered a lot of years. Hell, Bruce is 70 years old now.
Well, sometimes I think of Sleater-Kinney as a band of riot grrrls, emphasis on girls. They weren't exactly girls, even when I first saw them (Carrie was 23, Corin was 25, Janet was an ancient 34). This is no longer true, and their music reflects their middle-agedness. At a show a few days ago in Texas, Corin celebrated her 47th birthday.
And so now I realize they have been around so long, and been important in my life for so long, that I can use them to mark time. Or I can just use them as another example of how time flies (i.e., I am getting old). I first saw Sleater-Kinney in concert more than 20 years ago, and that simple fact blows my mind. Let's put it in blog context: I saw them five times before I started this blog, and this blog is almost 18 years old.
That first show in 1998 was at the Great American Music Hall, which holds 600. It remains the smallest venue I've seen them at, and I've seen them there 7 times. Here they are in 1998:
Here they are in 2000, back when Janet would tell jokes:
And from the last time I saw them, New Year's Eve, 2016/7:
And most obviously, here is a complete show from a month ago:
"I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where 'I’m not sure I wanna go on at all' co-exists with 'Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end'."
Sleater-Kinney, "No Cities to Love". From one of the two concerts I attended in 2015. Both were Sleater-Kinney concerts. I can't overstate how much it meant to me when they returned from their "hiatus". I could have made this list the ten songs from No Cities to Love and it would accurately reflect what I listened to that year.
Vince Staples, "Norf Norf". OK, this is an actual music video.
Hey, guess what? I'm not done with Sleater-Kinney. Here's the official video for "No Cities to Love". You can watch it twice if you want, just to make sure you identify all the guest stars (which include Captain Marvel and someone who went to high school with my daughter):
Sleater-Kinney, "Sympathy". Corin Tucker's finest moment, and another ultimate 9/11 song.
Norah Jones, "Come Away with Me". The album earned Jones her first Grammy, at the age of 23. Also her second, third, fourth, and fifth Grammy. It was her debut album.
Pink, "Don't Let Me Get Me". I obsess over this video. I used it in the classroom. I've written about both the song and the video before. After seeing her live for the first time, in 2002, I wrote:
The show had many highlights ... the oddest one for me came with the final song of the night, "Don't Let Me Get Me." This was the anthem all the girls had been waiting for, and seeing and hearing them sing along to this complex song was bizarre. What does it mean when a bunch of kids happily shout out "I wanna be somebody else"? The closest thing I can think of is when the audience would sing along with Johnny Rotten's "No Future!" ... as if in the act of proclaiming our nihilism, we were expressing our love of life. Except I don't ever remember wanting to be Johnny Rotten, while I think a lot of people in that audience would have been happy if the "somebody else" they got to be was in fact the woman who introduced those words to us in the first place: Pink.