Sleater-Kinney steps aside with lively show

Seminal trio says goodbye at 9:30 Club


With roaring guitars, relentless drums and electric stage chemistry, punk-rock trio Sleater-Kinney said goodbye Thursday night at the 9:30 Club in Washington, marking what may be its final visit to the area with a nearly two-hour show.

Guitarist-singers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein intertwined searing vocals and guitar lines as drummer Janet Weiss pounded away behind them, driving the band through a remarkable set that drew from their last five albums. They tore through 24 songs, many of them from last year's celebrated release The Woods, and included several that longtime fans had never before heard live.

"They had so much energy," said Jason Jones, 31, who drove from Baltimore to catch the show. "The riffing was awesome, unique. I've never seen anything like that before."

In a way, the show marked the end of an era. Renowned for politically charged lyrics, complex yet catchy tunes and lead vocalist Tucker's unrestrained wail, the 11-year-old band emerged from the early '90s counterculture "riot grrl" scene, a feminist punk-rock movement that aimed to establish a new role for women in the male-dominated world of rock music.

But while better-known contemporaries such as Courtney Love and Liz Phair faded, Sleater-Kinney quietly redefined its sound with increasing musicianship on each of its seven full-length albums. The band became one of the most respected acts in rock 'n' roll, solidifying women's place in modern rock with reverberations stretching from the somewhat obscure Canadian punk band Operation Makeout to mainstream pop-rocker Avril Lavigne.

"There was a whole sort of movement of bands that they fell into, and they were so much better than all of them," said Bob Boilen, host of National Public Radio's All Songs Considered. (NPR broadcast last week's concert, which can be heard online at / music.)

"There are so many people who think that they're one of the most important pop bands of the last 10 years. They've got this wonderful energy that I think inspires people to pick up instruments. That's the wonderful thing about their spirit: There's no pretense."

The Washington performance is part of the group's final six-city concert tour before its members go on indefinite hiatus. The band declined to give interviews on its farewell tour -- which is set to conclude next weekend with two shows in the members' hometown, Portland, Ore. -- and posted on its Web site only this cryptic comment: "The upcoming summer shows will be our last. As of now, there are no plans for future tours or recordings."

The announcement filled fans with dismay. "It's really depressing to see them go," said 20-year-old Jessica Rose of Frederick. "Their voices, the fact that there's just two guitars, no need for a bass player. They have an awesome, original sound."

Named after a freeway ramp near Olympia, Wash., the band is considered the only relevant survivor of the Pacific Northwest's early '90s rock boom. Founding members Tucker, Brownstein and then-drummer Lora MacFarlane released their self-titled debut for Chainsaw records in 1995, following it in 1996 with Call the Doctor. They then moved to Kill Rock Stars -- an Olympia-based label -- for their next four albums. Weiss joined the band for 1997's Dig Me Out.

They were soon playing major alternative tours like Lollapalooza and Coney Island's Siren Music Festival. In 2003, they opened for Pearl Jam on a summerlong tour.

While never breaking through in commercial radio, the band developed a dedicated fan base and scored consistent critical praise for its studio albums. Boilen chose to feature the band in the NPR concert series for its members' inventive, imaginative songwriting and its lasting influence on music lovers, describing it as the type of band that makes listeners want to start their own.

To fans, Sleater-Kinney stood for an impassioned and unbridled expression of ideas that complemented its aggressive rock edge. In the wake of Sept. 11, and well before anti-Bush sentiments became fashionable among mainstream acts like the Dixie Chicks, Kanye West and Green Day, Sleater-Kinney was already asking, "Where is the questioning, where is the protest song? / Since when is skepticism un-American?"

The band answered its own question in the 2002 album, One Beat. Two weeks after country singer Toby Keith gave us the Statue of Liberty shakin' her fist in the single "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," Sleater-Kinney responded from its own perspective: "We'll come out with our fists raised ... The past becomes the future once again." On the same album, band members recounted the details of Sept. 11 this way: "And the president hides / While working men rush in / To give their lives."

"They can find this amazing energy and a creative way to present it that feels fresh, and they've been doing it for 10 years. When you're in a band that's really hard to do," Boilen said.

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