Sleater-Kinney Jams Without Granola

By Jim Harrington for the Alameda Times-Star. May 25, 2004.


SEEING Sleater-Kinney Sunday night in San Francisco was at times like watching Television, the legendary band that came out of New York's punk scene in the 1970s.

Sleater-Kinney's punchy arsenal of three-minute songs and true do-it-yourself attitude has often been compared to CBGB vets such as the Ramones and other punk legends. But never before has the SK's taunt take on rock'n' roll brought the spacey jams of Television to mind.

Sunday at the Fillmore, this highly acclaimed indie act jammed like nobody's business. Much to the surprise of longtime fans, the trio turned its focus inward, watching each other carefully and boldly improvising some numbers.

The audience witnessed a band, finally, in transition.

The roaring mixtures of buzzsaw guitars, heavy drum beats and primal screams of the band's self-titled debut in 1995 have made SK one of the most successful indie bands in the world. But SK is changing and jamming -- one of the most feared words all of indie-dom.

However, don't expect to see any SK bumper stickers on VW buses at Phish shows anytime soon. There's still a big difference between SK's jams and the gooey adventures of String Cheese Incident or the far-reaching explorations of Widespread Panic.

SK jams without the granola, mostly leaving out the blues licks and psychedelic wanderings to open itself to a palette of aggressive, yet hypnotic, rock sounds. In that sense, the trio is very reminiscent of Television.

These jams further the adventure begun on 2002's "One Beat," the trio's most diverse offering to date. With that album, SK stretched its trademark two-guitars-and-drums sound to include other elements and instruments.

One thing definitely hasn't changed: This band, which takes its name from a freeway off-ramp in Olympia, Wash., remains one of the best live acts in the business. Sunday's concert proved why it's in vogue to refer to SK as "the world's greatest rock band," which would make the trio the first female act to hold the title.

Starting with a well-received set by Quasi, which also features SK's Janet Weiss on drums, the trio burst into action with a scalding rendition of "Turn It On" from 1997's "Dig Me Out" and the fiery ride didn't stop for 75 minutes.

They played it straight at first, delivering by-the-book versions of "One Beat," "Not What You Want," "Combat Rock" and "Faraway," and leaving the grinding improvisation for later in the show.

The band was in great form and put on a memorable concert for its passionate following, many of whom had attended Saturday's show as well.

Weiss, clearly not worn out from the earlier set with Quasi, was a punishing drummer, alternating between machine gun-style quick beats and sledgehammer displays of pure power.

Lead vocalist Corin Tucker is one of rock's best screamers and she sounded like she was battling for her soul as she howled through "Turn It On" and "Not What You Want.

But she also showcased a surprising amount of range, notably on the "One Beat"-track "Sympathy." A staggering change of pace from the regular Ramones-style fury, "Sympathy" was a slow winner that could have been handled by Bonnie Raitt.

Berkeley resident Carrie Brownstein was the most animated of the bunch, delivering Pete Townshend-style windmills on her guitar and kicking her legs like Bruce Lee.

She also led the charge when it came time to spread the jam. Handling the roles occupied by both Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd in Television, Brownstein went deep into space during "Hollywood Ending" and "Little Babies." It's not absurd to say that one could even hear a little Jerry Garcia in her adventuresome improvisation.

Springing to life from the Dead, the trio kicked off its generous encore with Tucker screaming out the fan-favorite "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone."

She was only partially successful in that pursuit. On this night, Sleater-Kinney was equal parts Ramones and Television.