You could be forgiven for wondering if, when Sleater-Kinney announced their first tour in nine years, you had missed seeing the group in its prime. You needn’t have. As it turns out, nearly a decade later, they’re still in it.
The postpunk trio from the Pacific Northwest has no interest in cashing in on Nineties nostalgia. And since dropping No Cities to Love early this year and launching their first string of shows since 2006, they’ve reminded us that they’re America’s most indispensable rock band — and quite possibly the best live band on the planet.
For nearly 90 minutes on Thursday night, Sleater-Kinney — Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein on guitar and vocals, Janet Weiss on drums — electrified an over-capacity Terminal 5 crowd that seemed equal parts aging-Gen-Xer and bouncy millennial. They were all treated to a setlist that was heavy on new material (the urgent, blissfully chaotic No Cities made up a third of the 23-song set) while giving new life to their long-mothballed standards.
Opening with the staccato and reverb-rich “Price Tag” — track one on the new album — the band set the tone early, moving quickly between songs, offering little in the way of stage banter, but blasting through each number like a Howitzer. Sleater-Kinney were never a band made for six-minute epics. They are at their best when firing off frantic, 180-second punk-rock missives, making it not at all surprising that the standouts from last night’s set included quick-hit classics like “Turn It On,” “Youth Decay,” and “Words and Guitar.”
Brownstein has apparently not forgotten how to unironically deploy classic-rock guitar tropes to command an audience. She windmilled, kicked, and stomped around her usual stage-right position while Tucker, whose approach was decidedly more staid, unleashed her familiar (and shockingly effortless) caterwaul on nearly every song. Meanwhile, Weiss provided the occasional high harmony from behind the kit, while demonstrating why she spent most of the last decade as an in-demand session and touring drummer — she hits like a sledgehammer.
During the set closer, “Dig Me Out,” Brownstein crossed the stage and approached Tucker, who was sailing through the song’s second verse. After a night of Townshend-like guitar theatrics, Brownstein seemed beat. Trading in the Who for the E Street Band, she rested her head on Tucker’s shoulder, and the two rocked in unison for several bars before Brownstein retreated back to her side of the stage. It was a rare moment of onstage interaction between the two friends who founded the band and whose partnership in every way defines it — from their songwriting to their interchanging lead vocals to their unique brand of guitar-weaving that compensates for Sleater-Kinney never having had a bass player. Seconds later, just before the final note, Brownstein and Tucker shot one another a quick smile. It was a moment that likely meant as much to them as it did to those lucky enough to have caught the exchange. They were, at the same time, reveling in nostalgia and thrilled to be existing in their present — much like the audience.
Soon after, the trio were waving to the crowd that they’d just worked into a frenzy. “See you tomorrow,” Brownstein promised, reminding everyone that there was still another chance to live that moment again.