When Janet Weiss, longtime drummer of Sleater-Kinney, said she was leaving the band and partly due to creative differences on the band’s 2019 album The Center Won’t Hold, it came as a shock to most fans. I had seen Sleater-Kinney the first time in October 1998 at The Fox Theatre in Boulder and Weiss was a standout performer among impressive turns by Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker. Having then found out about the band through Brownstein’s insightful commentary on her influences in Roni Sarig’s book The Secret History of Rock I was not let down when I decided to see if it was possible to see Sleater-Kinney in Colorado. Picking up Call the Doctor and then most recent album Dig Me Out felt revelatory like this band was saying things that needed to be said at a time when not a lot of that was in the public discourse. I also saw Weiss perform in other bands over the years. In Quasi basically I was awestruck by her raw power and versatility and how her style seemed different in that band as well as when she was a drummer in Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks.
Before Sleater-Kinney split that first time I’d seen the bands four times and bring along noteworthy artists on the tours the way independent bands used to and sometimes still do. Bands like Ailer’s Set, The Gossip and The Quails. I was in retrospect impressed with how the band brought on Rainbow Sugar and The Pauline Heresy to open at The Fox as Rainbow Sugar became one of my bands at that time and so did Pauline Heresy when Yoon Park and Claudine Rousseau formed the post-punk band Sin Desires Marie with Germaine Baca of Rainbow Sugar. Going to see them always seemed inspirational and transformational. Their records seeming to be exactly what I wanted to hear when they came out. When Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006 it felt like the beginning of the end of an era of music.
Then the reunion happened and following the release of No Cities to Love in 2015 it was obvious the trio was back into the swing of things and the band’s show at the Ogden Theatre with Lizzo as the opening act was fantastic. When Sleater-Kinney returned for Riot Fest in 2016 I felt I had seen a lot more music during the interim and braving an injury I decided to stick around to see them, though feeling for some reason I’d seen the band several times already and knew what they were about. I don’t know what I was expecting but it felt like the band was having fun and rediscovering their power even more as a live band and keeping the vibe casual but electric. It hit me as refreshing and as though somehow the band was tapped into some general mood a lot of people were in with culture and politics. It was a bracing reminder that this band still had something to offer someone like me who has seen and heard so much and didn’t even want to be at a festival given aforementioned injury. It’s easy to get jaded especially when you’re not feeling well. Yet Sleater-Kinney made it seem worth it even if only to catch the band’s set (I also saw Danny Brown, Vince Staples and Ween before going home, all also worthwhile).
So what would a post-Janet Weiss Sleater-Kinney look and sound like live? The album The Center Won’t Hold certainly showcased a band that was evolving in a direction that maybe many fans didn’t appreciate. But it also contained some of the band’s best songs to date and let us know that the band felt the need to do something different and not get stuck in a rut. Weiss has publicly said why she left the band and one can hardly blame her given her reasons. There’s no replacing someone like Janet Weiss whose unique and powerful style uplifts all of her projects. But for this tour Angie Boylan of Aye Nako and Freezing Cold stepped in and more than ably performed songs that would have to be challenging for most other drummers to play. So much so that it felt like Brownstein and Tucker were able to relax and project a sense of joy and solidarity. Katie Harkin and Toko Yasuda helped fill out the instrumentation especially on keyboards so bring that deeply atmospheric sensibility of The Center Won’t Hold.
The set with the current touring lineup felt like a sustained spark of hope in a bleak time in America. Once again, to me, Sleater-Kinney was singing about the things people need to hear, about which many of us are thinking. They also brought to bear insight into the insecurities and psychological trauma that seems to be striking our lives with increasing regularity whether economically, our social lives, the death of friends whether you’re young or old through illness, murder or suicide. The songs on the new record also addressed issues of isolation, being able to look forward when world events seem so paralyzing with a sense that everything is broken and beyond our ability to repair or redeem. The songs don’t try to sugar coat or to say that everything will be okay. But it also isn’t a set of nihilistic songs as that mindset is its own form of despair obsession. The show felt like the band sharing with us a sense that we’re going to need each other in a real and vulnerable way if we have any hope of getting through this period without throwing up our hands and letting the fascists and their cronies take over the world and dictate what’s left of the future of the human race if their program prevails.
The Center Won’t Hold
Hurry On Home
The Future Is Here
Bury Our Friends
What’s Mine Is Yours
One More Hour
Can I Go On
A New Wave
The Dog/The Body
Words and Guitar
Dig Me Out
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