I’m looking at the phrase ‘Sleater Kinney’ written in an understated font on a drumhead from the front row of the Manchester Academy, and reflecting that at one point in the career of this riot grrrl behemoth, I would not have been allowed into the room.
When they were starting out in the Pacific North West alongside feminist punk icons like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Seven Year Bitch, men were barred from entering.
Sleater Kinney were one of the only bands to acquire any kind of gloss and transcend that scene – to sell out, if you will – and they soon found that there was a financial, if no other kind of incentive to let the boys in on the fun.
They were always a cut above their contemporaries in terms of raw musical talent, which as a band, they are awash with. However, they have never stopped centring their ultimately political messages.
As Carrie Brownstein, Sleater Kinney’s lead guitarist (and co-creator of Portlandia with Fred Armisen) sings in a track from their 2005 effort The Woods, “We’re not here cause we want to entertain.”
The Sleater Kinney package may come in a musical wrapper, but it is political activism, first and foremost, through and through.
Brownstein makes the point explicitly in a soliloquy between songs. The music is their way of “dismantling systems of injustice”, at a time when nationalism, or as one fan somewhere to my right enthusiastically dubs it, “fascism”, is the word of the day in both their native United States and the United Kingdom.
And although there is anger in many of the songs they perform, there is also hope. Brownstein proclaims that although the present belongs to the right, “the future belongs to immigrants, and queers.”
Her assertion is met with cheers from an audience that is, now 26 years into the band’s career, still overwhelmingly female.
There are a few main themes in their political material, which coalesce around the central point that life under capitalist modernity is bad enough without being a woman, or gay.
In Price Tag, from 2015’s No Cities to Love, lead vocalist Corin Tucker, describes children being forced to steal food in the streets. She explains, “with the good jobs gone / it’s gonna be raw”. In Modern Girl, also from The Woods, Carrie explains that anger and hunger are what characterise the modern female experience.
“I’m sick of this brave new world,” she opines.
The starkest the band get when it comes to the effects of alienation under capitalism is in their song Jumpers, a chilling ode to the many who have taken their lives by jumping from the “golden spine of engineering”, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, having simply been beaten down by life in modernity: the traffic jams, the industrial farms. These three may be the songs that are greeted with the warmest response from the audience.
Having said all of that, many of the songs they play are more upbeat, and many concern what the political material essentially boils down to: love.
In One More Hour, from 1997’s Dig Me Out, Corin pleads, “don’t say another word / about the other girl”, a lyric which is heartfelt enough without knowing as I do, having read Carrie’s wonderful autobiography Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, that this lyric was written about her bandmate, the two having shared a romantic relationship during the early years of the band’s career.
Another is New Wave, a poppy celebration of the camaraderie and bonhomie one experiences as a member of a touring band. Often during these numbers, Carrie, the more explosive onstage personality, will stride, or mince, or shuffle over to Corin and lean her head affectionately on her shoulder as she sings.
At other points in the show, she will kick, jump, twirl, fall to her knees and roll onto her back, all the time wrenching her iconic walnut Gibson SG around with real vigour. The amount of energy Carrie puts into navigating the stage in creative ways has proven a key element of her guitar playing.
Wild slides and vicious vibrato contribute to a singular style, which only offers the façade of untidiness. When she wants to, which is only very occasionally, she will play passages with an enviable degree of dexterity and control, so what may appear to be a lack of technique is itself a carefully and consciously developed style.
She plays and sings the way a teenager might, not forcing herself to be too controlled, and injecting a defiant sulkiness into her voice and demeanour. She often gasps in exasperation during songs, glowering through a curtain of dark hair at her adoring fans.
She understands and embraces the fact that this is show time. Although she claims not to be, she is here to entertain, and accepts the responsibility with relish. At the end of the performance, having spent the past two hours dancing extravagantly and playing beautifully, it is she that jumps down off the front of the stage to shake hands – and to give me her guitar pick!
Corin is somehow both more subdued, and much more forceful in her stage presence. She usually stands completely still and bellows at the crowd, plucking away at the honey burst Gibson Les Paul that’s been her weapon of choice for decades.
Carrie once described her bandmate’s voice as a “force of nature”, which I’d say is rather underselling it. Her vocal range is astonishing, and she’s capable of generating tremendous volume.
Halfway through the encore, the band launch into the Woods opener, The Fox, in a squall of feedback, and once the song has gathered some momentum, Corin’s voice wavers upon the cusp of breaking completely from sheer loudness.
Although she is the less accomplished guitarist, she has excelled at playing a supporting role for Carrie instrumentally, often de-tuning her guitars to offer lines resembling bass parts, and being content to provide simpler backdrops than she would on their first albums.
The musical growth rate of this band can be charted, and unfortunately, it peaked in 2005 with The Woods, and sharply tailed off with the band’s most recent effort, 2019’s The Centre Won’t Hold.
The band’s new songs were not received nearly as well as the older material by the Manchester audience, and they weren’t alone. Unfortunately, after a quarter of a century of dedicated and distinguished service, the band’s original drummer, Janet Weiss, decided she could not stand behind what Sleater Kinney were producing, and left the band once recording was completed on The Centre Won’t Hold.
This was a shame, as there are few better or more creative rock drummers working these days, and I had never had the opportunity to see all three founding members together live. I now fear I never shall.
She was replaced for the tour by Angie Boylan, who on the night, turns in a respectful performance and acquits himself very well. He refrains from putting much of his own spin on any of Janet’s parts, and calls little attention to himself, all while recreating her lines with a military efficiency, though he lacks a certain swagger and spirit of fun that always characterised her drumming.
Although I am naturally disappointed by a setlist which heavily features material from their new album – which I realise they have to play – I am blown away by their energy, their quality, and their punctuality.
After precisely an hour of standing in a layer of beer-soaked chewing gum by the footlights, special guest Harkin arrives on stage on the dot of 8:00pm.
This, like the Sleater Kinney of old, is an all-girl three-piece. Harkin is fronted by Leeds lass, and Sleater Kinney tour rhythm guitarist and keyboard player, Katie Harkin.
She is joined by Glenn on bass and Lena on drums, who are both American, and are in the UK for the first time. As such, they have spent their day learning about the joys of English life, namely, Argos, Greggs, and Tunnock’s tea cakes, which Lena insists with delight are “better than s’mores!”
The fact that Harkin herself made it into the main act’s touring band has not escaped the attention of the man standing beside me in a faded Sonic Youth t-shirt, who hopes that this will mean we’ll get an opening act we can “enjoy rather than endure.”
Harkin do rise well above the level of sweet mediocrity achieved by many opening acts, revelling in the gentle discord of the suspension, the major seventh, and the offbeat.
Their songs mostly revolve around minimal variations on a central theme, which works for them very well structurally. They all wear red and navy blue, though Harkin herself eventually reappears in uniform black when Sleater Kinney take to the stage one hour later, at the advertised time of 9:00pm.
Here’s what they played:
- The Centre Won’t Hold
- Hurry on Home
- Price Tag
- The Future is Here
- Reach Out
- Bury Our Friends
- One More Hour
- What’s Mine is Yours
- No Cities to Love
- Call the Doctor
- Bad Dance
- Youth Decay
- Can I Go On
- A New Wave
- The Dog/The Body
- Modern Girl
- The Fox*
- Gloria (Laura Branigan cover)
- Dig Me Out
*They planned on playing Start Together, but as they correctly noted, this crowd was baying for the heavier songs.