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Sleater-Kinney's poised intensity
Sold-out show gives fans an earful
Midway through Sleater-Kinney's simmering set Monday at the Great American Music Hall, one-of-a-kind singer Corin Tucker cocked her head at an angle and gave her devoted fans a gleeful hairy eyeball, a la Johnny Rotten.
It was a strange look for Tucker. Her ice-pick voice may be one of the most powerful instruments in rock, but there's nothing at all threatening about the woman. Tucker, a new mom, and her band mates, fellow guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, make up one of the most unassuming groups in rock. That their music epitomizes intensity only adds to the intrigue.
The band, now based in Portland, is playing a few shows after taking off the better part of last year (during which it was named the country's best rock band by Time magazine). Monday's show was the first of three consecutive at the Music Hall; tonight's sold out almost immediately, like the others.
The threesome has at least a half-dozen songs on the drawing board for its next album, its sixth, which isn't due until fall. They aired out all the new material on Monday, suggesting a subtle downshift from the band's usual punky go-go to a hard-rock stomp.
Lyrics were nearly impossible to decipher, tangled as they were in the thicket of the two guitars. Brownstein, as usual, played the rationalist, singing in a controlled monotone or a sweet singsong. Tucker, meanwhile, layered her vocals on top; they're the group's ID, soaring from mild panic to unchecked hysteria.
Punk rock doesn't begin to describe the music Sleater-Kinney makes. Yes, it's raw, essentially simple rock 'n' roll. But the band's precision -- not typically a quality associated with punk -- and the unique words-and-guitar dialogue between Brownstein and Tucker suggest something far more complex.
"They want to socialize you," wailed the operatic Tucker, kicking off the 90-minute set with "Call the Doctor." "They want to purify you, dignify, analyze, terrorize you." Of course, the band was having none of that.
A paper airplane sailed down from the balcony, and the audience, which had watched the two opening bands politely, let out a collective whoop and lurched into an instant bob-and-weave. To their fans, men and women alike, Sleater-Kinney are role models of womanhood in an art form that hasn't done very well by women over the years. "We love you, Carrie!" yelped one disciple, and others in the audience were quick to reassure her band mates, too. "We love you, Corin! We love you, Janet! "
With Weiss playing her stately, tub-thumping style of drumming, the tomboyish Brownstein strode long-legged around the stage, intimating vintage Chuck Berry moves. Tucker, meanwhile, carried herself with the refinement suggested in "The Ballad of a Ladyman": "I could be demure like girls who are soft for boys who are fearful of getting an earful." But the song goes on to mock such daintiness: "I gotta rock!"
And the band sure did, blowing the lid off about 20 minutes into the set with the punk pep rally "You're No Rock 'n' Roll Fun." During the song's instrumental bridge, Tucker and Brownstein strutted around the stage like nobody's business, suppressing smiles behind their poise. They were in total command, and they knew it.
When that song ended, Brownstein thanked the crowd for its enthusiasm. "We were wondering whether people were still experiencing live shows in a visceral way," she said shyly. "We haven't played in a while."
No need to call the doctor. As Tucker sang in one of the new songs, this band's music still "kick kick kicks" in all the right places.