Sleater-Kinney, Great American Music Hall, 5/2 & 5/3
One of the first songs I ever heard Corin Tucker sing was from a demo for her first band Heavens To Betsy that I bought in 1992 at a record store in New York City. The song was called "Baby's Gone" and it was a sparse, guitar-and-voice-only track where she sang from the point of view of a young woman who had died while attempting a self-abortion. The song was so intense and personal I felt as if I were invading her privacy by listening to it; reading a diary that wasn't my own full of someone's most secret thoughts. And even though it wasn't a subject that I could personally relate to it was so inspiring. I'd never heard anyone sing the kind of songs she sang in Heavens To Betsy and she was one of the musicians that came out of the whole riot grrrl/queerpunk explosion in the '90s that really inspired me to start playing music. Her voice was incredible and she totally blew my mind much the same way Kristin Hersh did when I first heard Throwing Muses when I was 15.
Fast forward 14 years to San Francisco and the Great American Music Hall and Corin Tucker is still blowing my mind. Sleater-Kinney were in town for a two night stand at GAMH after their show two days previously at Coachella. They didn't have to stop here at all since there wasn't further touring booked in the area, but the band really seems to love San Francisco, as they told us many times both nights. When Corin hit the bridge of the song "Sympathy" near the end of their first night set, it was a similar feeling to the one I had back in 1992. "Sympathy" is about the difficulties she had during her pregnancy with her son Marshall and how it seemed like he might not make it into the world. Luckily he had a healthy and safe birth, but the song reflects her own turmoil and pain waiting and wondering if he'd make it through. It's a stark contrast to "Baby's Gone", starting out with a single, plaintive guitar line and then bursting into a full-on blues rock stomp and wail. She doesn't hold back vocally in the recording and live it's a hundred times more incendiary. It's as if she's reliving those moments of fear and desperation in front of the audience and it almost feels like we shouldn't be there - like it's too personal. But we are there and we are allowed to witness this incredibly personal moment and it's one of the many moments where Sleater-Kinney blows so many other rock bands right out of the water. The fact that they did that dozens of times both nights is no small feat.
Sleater-Kinney has never been a band to disappoint with their live show. But watching Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein evolve from the contained intensity that seemed to boil from each one of them behind their mic stands to these confident, audacious, show-stopping rockers is really incredible. Pete Townshend would bow down before Carrie's guitar shredding leaps and windmills just as any singer in his or her right mind would kill for a weapon like Corin's voice in their arsenal. It's always been astounding but now there's so much control and depth to her voice it's definitely awe inspiring to hear live. And don't even get me started on Janet Weiss. She's been a fantastic drummer since the first time I saw her touring with S-K. But she's gone from this precise, flawless drummer who could replicate every hit, fill and crash from the albums to this insane-yet-still-incredibly-tight drumming maniac. Watching her makes me feel like I tap on some pieces of cardboard every now and again as opposed to playing drums. She still gets all her parts right but she throws in wild improvisations and fills-galore so even their oldest songs sound new and exciting. The fact that they play all of one slow song in the whole set where she only drums a little at the end amazes me. I seriously get tired just watching her. All hail.
So the first night at GAMH was great but the second night was just plain incredible. Both sets had them playing everything off of The Woods except for "Steep Air" (which was not missed) as well as some tunes from All Hands On The Bad One and One Beat. But the second night was a total wish-fulfillment set. Red, Geof and I all had songs we were hoping and praying they'd play on the second night: "Get Up", "Good Things", "Everything", "Turn It On" and "One Beat". They played every single one. They also blew us all away by playing "Little Mouth" as the final song of their second encore. I can't even remember the last time they did that one live. The entire second night was completely live album-worthy - including both of the covers they did - Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight" and Bruce Springsteen's "The Promised Land". And I do hope that such a live release exists someday. Pair it with a live DVD and myself and many other folks can die happy.
Corin completely owned the second night and it felt as if her voice could do no wrong. She was loud, confident and even playful, rocking some serious Susanna Hoffs eyes during the saucier moments of "Milkshake n Honey" and "Get Up". One of the things I have always loved about her songwriting in S-K is that she actually allows desire and sexuality to be a part of the usually sexless, "we just cuddle and are shy" world of indie rock in a way that is both real and cliche-free. And while I know there are legions of fans who think Carrie is just sex on a stick with her fabulous guitar moves and her onstage swaggering, Corin is always the secret bombshell of S-K in my mind. Anyone whose songwriting repetoire can contain both a song about atomic fusion, the ill effects of war and the need for change in our culture ("One Beat") as well as one sung from the perspective of a horny male tourist in France who has "always been a guy with a sweet tooth and that girl was just like a king-sized candy bar" wins in my book. She puts her heart, brains and lust on her sleeve and that rocks.
Most shows, even ones with bands that I love, always leave me with a desire to jump onstage and play with my own band. I get antsy as an audience member and I want to play, play, play. It's not a dis against the band or bands I am seeing, it partially means they inspire me to rock. But I am never content just watching them. But both nights at The Great American Music Hall I was more than happy to stand - and dance my ass off - in the audience with everyone else as I watched one of the best bands in existence do what they do best. Here's to decades more.