The last time Sleater-Kinney played a show in San Francisco, it was a two-night stand at the Great American Music Hall that ran May 2nd and 3rd, 2006. Exactly nine years to the day, they returned to San Francisco, only instead of returning to that intimate, 600-seat club, they played nine blocks away at the newly-restored Masonic Theater. The fact that they put so much care and thought into the tour routing meant that this was going to be a special event; the fact that these shows both sold out in milliseconds proved that San Francisco cared just as much about their return as the band does.
A lot has changed in the nine years that Sleater-Kinney has been on hiatus. Drummer Janet Weiss continued to play in her other band, Quasi, as well as joining Bright Eyes, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, and starting an all-drum supergroup with Death Grips’ Zach Hill and Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron called Drumgasm. Corin Tucker put out two amazing solo records, as well as starting a band with fellow rock legends Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana. The busiest, however, was Carrie Brownstein. She teamed up with NPR to write Monitor Mix, a fantastic music blog; she joined forces with Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen to create a series of humorous video shorts called Thunderant, which later evolved into the IFC series Portlandia. She also dabbled in music a bit, putting out a record and a tour with Weiss as well Brownstein’s former bandmate in The Spells, Mary Timony; the band formed from this union called Wild Flag. Oh, and she was the spokesperson for American Express. She was bigger than an indie rock hero; she had become a full-fledged celebrity.
Sleater-Kinney reuniting is not some sort of nostalgia cash-in: the members stated that they amicably reunited because of a passion for playing and a need to play as a group again, and each night of this residency was an expression of this passion. Even the selection of openers was an expression of passion, not an attempt at selling more tickets. The first night brought us THEESatisfaction, a female hip-hop duo from Seattle. They performed lyrically dense, downtempo groove music, a description which may sound nothing like Sleater-Kinney on the surface, but definitely resonated with their spirit. The second night gave us a rare performance by Ian Rubbish, the aging punk alter ego of Fred Armisen. He played a set of tongue-in-cheek, retro-punk songs, including a cover of The Ramones’ “Danny Says” and a duet with legendary Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould.
When the time finally came for Sleater-Kinney’s set, both nights began in the same way: the 1-2 punch of No Cities To Love tracks “Price Tag” and “Fangless.” They’ve been opening with this two songs since the tour began in February, yet they’ve been playing the songs with the kind of passion of a band that just started their tour. The shows may have started the same way, but after that point, the two nights couldn’t have been more different.
Night one was a performance by a band that felt that they needed to prove something. This was the 29th time I had seen this band in concert, and I’ve never seen a set quite this ferocious. They pulled the bulk of the set from The Woods and Dig Me Out, and in the 100 minutes the band was on stage, the set didn’t slow down once. It was a beautiful display of fiery brutality. The crowd was frantic as well, eventually erupting into a full on mosh. The band hardly said a word to the crowd, but it didn’t matter. We were treated to several tracks that have been played very rarely on this tour, such a “The Fox,” “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and an epic, 15 minute reading of “Let’s Call It Love.” Tucker’s voice is the best it’s sounded in years, with her impassioned quiver sending chills down my spine. Brownstein was in full on rock guitar legend mode, her fast and ferocious playing coupled with a mix of high-air kicks and jumps off of the drum riser. They only calmed down at the end of the encore, with a lovely, audience participation heavy version of “Modern Girl.”
The second night of Sleater-Kinney’s SF residency, although still fantastic, was very, very different. The focus this night was melody. We enjoyed a band that was a little warmer, telling jokes to the crowd, and letting the songs breathe a little more. Tonight gave us a lot of “ballads” like “Get Up” and “Good Things.” Although the band still went heavy from time to time, the flow was much more calmer. We did get a rare crowd surfer at an SK show, but Tucker glared her back onto the floor. It was the quickest crowd surf I’ve ever witnessed.
Getting to spend two nights in a row with one of the greatest bands in the history of music was a glorious treat. The world has sorely lacked a band with this much raw emotional intensity combined with creative musicianship. It would be a terrible thing if it takes another nine years for them to return.
(Editor’s Note: For Sunday night, “Let’s Call It Love” and “Ironclad” were not played and were instead replaced with “One More Hour”.)
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2015 Jonathan Pirro.