SLEATER-KINNEY @ Cabaret La Tulipe

By Alex Huynh - Losing My Edge - 06/19/05

A caveat before this review begins: I am a late arrival in the world of Sleater-Kinney. My appreciation for the band derives almost from a sense of duty and respect for their work, rather than from boundless passion cultivated through years of excellent releases. Nope, I bought my first Sleater-Kinney album when One Beat came out in 2002, and only because I had heard The Hot Rock a few weeks before and it just felt apropos. The reason why I underline this is because once a veteran band has reached a certain level of "importance", their latter releases basically get a free pass from longtime fans and critics alike (see: Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo). Having those albums serve as an introduction to such groups is akin to watching a television drama series starting from the third season. Sure, there is plenty to appreciate and admire, but lacking the backstory and missing out on the progressive development of the characters severely handicap one's ability to fully grasp the work at hand. Thus, perhaps I am in a rare position to judge this show stripped of any context other than the here and now.

One could deduce that the crowd consisted mostly of hardcore fans, because surely the size of the audience would have doubled if anyone with a passing interest in Sleater-Kinney would have shown up. The sense of intimacy grew as a result of opener Dead Meadow canceling, and thus rendering this into a type of "An Evening With". Legend has it that an impromptu karaoke set broke out, with Sleater-Kinney backing up any brave soul who would step onstage and belt out Corin Tucker vocals. The show began officially with "The Fox", the opening track of their new album The Woods. Right off the bat, everything sounded tight and perfect. Too perfect. They were performing like a well-oiled machine, but perhaps that came at the expense of primal intensity. The first few songs were right off the new record ("Wilderness", "Modern Girl", "Rollercoaster") and they were adequately performed, but it seemed as though they were hooked up for an arena sound which didn't quite fit them. Eventually, they readjusted and what had felt homogenized in terms of one big sound was disintegrating and out came three very distinctive yet cohesive musical personalities. Perhaps it coincided with the older songs being played, but it suddenly felt more challenging and interesting (yet oddly danceable) than at the start.

Tucker's signature vocals were in full display, even though she was caught looking bored at times. Carrie Brownstein pulled off a few classic rock moves and her performance grew incrementally as the night went on, especially when it was her cue to unleash a guitar solo. However, the true MVP was drummer Janet Weiss, as she managed to infuse life in what would have been an insufferable performance of the epic "Let's Call It Love". As minutes ran into the double-digits and as both guitarists slowly ran out of ideas, Weiss muscled the song to a satisfying finish as it segued into their new single "Entertain". It bears to mention that preceding that near-catastrophe was arguably the highlight of the night, "Jumpers". Whereas great moments seemed fleeting throughout the concert, this particular rendition was more inspired and the intensity level was finally sustained. Equally impressive was the performance of "Everything", a song that can be found on the CD single "Entertain".

It is surely a bold move for an established band with a discography that can rival any to focus so much on a new album, but that is a credit to the solid material on the record. It is also a statement that Sleater-Kinney refuses to start playing the nostalgia card, as they are still in their creative prime. Live performance-wise, they appear to be still finding their footing and experimenting with the new songs. Right now, they seem to be playing it safe and not let the songs go to more interesting places. When they do jam out, it is rather tentative aside from the powerhouse drumming. Underneath this good show is possibly a great show a few months down the line.

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