A few songs into the last gig of Sleater-Kinney’s jubilant comeback year, lead vocalist Corin Tucker said something rather unbelievable. Reflecting on the intimacy of the newly reopened Market Hotel, in which we stood enraptured as she spoke, Tucker briefly reminisced about the days when Sleater-Kinney played tiny clubs and DIY venues as they were forming in Olympia, Washington in the mid-Nineties. It was the tail-end of the riot grrrl movement, a time when they played so many shows because they felt they had to prove themselves. “Sometimes it feels like we’ve still got something to prove,” she mused, and the band launched into “One More Hour,” from 1997’s Kill Rock Stars-released LP (and one of the band’s most essential) Dig Me Out. As the floor threatened to plummet to the organic deli below, it seemed almost ridiculous that this band, widely considered to be one of the best rock ‘n’ roll outfits of the 2000s, feels they need to prove anything.
Their first record in ten years, No Cities to Love, has been a resounding critical success, launching an equally successful reunion tour that brought their beloved and astonishing live act back to stages across America. The excitement over this spate of shows has been palpable; for plenty of Sleater-Kinney fans, it provided a first opportunity to witness their in-person glory. It might seem like Sleater-Kinney have arrived in a dazzling, triumphant moment, but they’ve never been a band content to just show up. Perpetually pushing boundaries and redefining what it means to truly rock, their winning approach has always been defying expectations rather than simply satisfying them. As much as anything, they’re “proving themselves” for their own satisfaction, and the rest of us are welcome to look on in complete awe, already convinced of their power as musicians.
The proof comes, most recently, in an impressive five-night run across New York City, which began last Saturday in the gorgeously restored Kings Theatre, followed by Upper West Side behemoth Terminal 5 (where they played two sold-out shows this past Spring). Since their 2002 arena tour in support of Pearl Jam just after the release of One Beat, Sleater-Kinney have shifted away from their scruffy punk roots, veering ever more closely into classic rock epic territory and ostensibly reaching it with the Dave Fridmann-produced tour de force The Woods in 2005. But, perhaps as a thank-you to fans for the year’s successes, Sleater-Kinney booked their last three shows in clubs of dwindling size, hitting Irving Plaza, Music Hall of Williamsburg, and finally, last night, Market Hotel, a “disappearing tour” that few bands could’ve pulled off.
Their appearance marked the space’s first official show since it shuttered in 2010, thanks largely to a crackdown on illegal independent venues throughout Brooklyn that ushered in a procession of similar closures. Even with a legitimate liquor license and a widened staircase that felt less like a death trap than it had five years ago, the venue could only accommodate a few hundred lucky fans; mostly, it retained its unvarnished charm. The build-out came down to the wire, but the only thing that could’ve derailed the show – the sound system – was thankfully on point. That was apparent from the get-go, thanks to a blistering opening set of guitar-noise vignettes from former Sonic Youth shredder Lee Ranaldo.
While it was great to have Market Hotel open after its own long hiatus, there were some limitations to what the space could provide a band like Sleater-Kinney, who are accustomed to taking over much larger spaces. The minuscule stage could not accommodate the riser that drummer Janet Weiss has played on of late, one that allows the audience to get the full scope of her jaw-dropping kit-pummeling. Watching Weiss wreck shop is an essential part of Sleater-Kinney fandom, so it was unfortunate that most vantage points obscured her prowess. Likewise, lead guitarist Carrie Brownstein reported that she had less room for her exuberantly choreographed rock star maneuvering – the leaps, hair-whipping, and hip-shaking that entertain during her signature numbers, like, appropriately enough, “Entertain.”
Still, the trio was in fine form, particularly Tucker’s quintessential tunnel yell. The band’s show-stopping rendition of “The Fox” showcased the breadth of her range, from lilting storyteller to antagonistic howler, with plenty of those long-held, quavering battle-cries that have defined Sleater-Kinney’s sound for two decades.
Sleater-Kinney’s astounding versatility has also remained unchanged since their flourish for variation: their night-to-night set lists coalesced around One Beat, a tour where they performed a different cover in every city they played based on fans’ online requests prior to the gigs. That versatility, of course, extends beyond their ability to cover Springsteen and the Ramones with equal aplomb, as the constant rotation of their own work guarantees a distinct experience at each show. Since rolling into town on Saturday, Sleater-Kinney have played nearly forty unique numbers, part of the reason many of the band’s most dedicated fans opt to attend multiple concerts. Market Hotel guests were treated to “The End of You,” as well as staples like “Words and Guitar,” “Jumpers,” “Get Up,” and “Bury Our Friends.”
Speaking of friends, last night was the fourth in a row that Brownstein invited her Portlandia co-star Fred Armisen onstage for a rollicking rendition of the B-52’s kitschy classic “Rock Lobster” during an encore that also included “Call the Doctor” and “Dig Me Out.” Again, the floors threatened to buckle. Armisen wore a black t-shirt with white letters that spelled out ANOTHER LADY FOR KATIE, referring to the band’s recent addition of keys-smith Katie Harkin, who said last night in a bit of stage banter that this year has been the best of her life. The tees are a play on the fan-made JANET FUCKING WEISS garments that have been circulating; that tee also spawned a FUCK CARRIE KILL? version that references Brownstein in the context of the hypothetical who-would-you-rather game, and a newly minted WHORIN’ FOR CORIN tee (which Brownstein wore all night).
It cannot be stated enough that Sleater-Kinney’s impact on rock ‘n’ roll is absolutely essential. They’ve never compromised their sound, politics, or work ethic, using the hiatus to pursue personal projects, each with their various merits. But there is little that compares to the magic that happens when they come together. On the foggy back window — the one behind the band that looked out onto the Myrtle-Broadway JMZ platform, where the trains rocketed ceaselessly by, for once dwarfed by a different kind of thunder — someone had scrawled an S, a K, and a series of hearts in the condensation. By now it will have evaporated, just like this remarkable comeback tour that Sleater-Kinney fans have been blessed with. But the band has left a permanent impression on the Market Hotel, imbuing it with the ecstatic joy that comes from a fortuitous rebirth, one Sleater-Kinney certainly know a thing or two about.