In Los Angeles for a TV performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Olympia luminaries Sleater-Kinney made a stop at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Dec. 14, treating fans to an intimate preview of their upcoming 2024 tour at the 150-capacity venue. Tackling 19 songs from throughout their 30-year career, founders Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker previewed songs from upcoming 11th album, Little Rope, while doing their best to answer some lingering, unspoken questions about the band’s future.
There comes a moment in every band reunion when the dilemma, “so what now?” starts to hang heavy over the proceedings. For Sleater-Kinney, this question arrived with particular weight in 2019. The band went out at the absolute peak of its powers in 2006, and the response to its 2015 return — with both a tour and a picking-up-where-they-left-off new album — was nothing short of rapturous. But the attempted reinventions of 2019’s St. Vincent-produced The Center Won't Hold were overshadowed by the sudden, messy departure of longtime drummer Janet Weiss, and 2021’s self-produced follow-up The Path of Wellness barely made a ripple. Plenty of veteran bands settle into a cash-the-check-and-play-the-hits groove at some point in their careers, but Sleater-Kinney is different. For all the timelessness of its songs and the pervasiveness of its influence on the last several decades of indie rock, this is a band that lives and dies on the living, breathing interplay between its members onstage. It’s impossible to imagine Sleater-Kinney simply going through the motions.
Judging by the 75-minute set last night, the band has no intention of doing that. At its best, the pairing of Tucker and Brownstein remains one of the most explosive partnerships in rock music, and Thursday’s show provided plenty of the old sparks. Noting “these are the size of venues we love to play,” Brownstein lead the now-five-piece band through several songs from Little Rope, all of which slotted in comfortably amidst the old standards. The downcast “Hell” served as a counterintuitively inspired choice for an opener, while the ‘80s-pop textures of new single “Say It Like You Mean It” were given a spikier, more muscular treatment in the live setting. “Hunt You Down,” performed for the first time last night, offered a showcase for the undiminished power of Tucker’s signature wail.
Given the unenviable task of replacing one of the most singular rock drummers of the last several decades, Angie Boylan was note-perfect and coolly unflappable behind the kit, while touring members Katie Harkin and Toko Yasuda provided some subtle extra color on guitar and keyboards, respectively. Of course, it was hard to deny that there was a certain frisson when the band stripped back to a trio for a singalong run through “Modern Girl” — with Yasuda joining at the end on melodica — but the fuller sound benefits some of the older songs as well as the newer ones.
The band reached into the back catalogue for energetic takes on “Ironclad,” “One More Hour” and “Dig Me Out” (the latter of which very nearly got a miniature mosh pit circulating in the 90-year-old venue), even tackling a radically slowed-down rendition of “Dance Song ’97,” dedicated to the late Mimi Parker of Low. But the biggest surprise was the rarely-performed “Slow Song,” from the band’s 1995 self-titled debut. “We do read your comments [on social media] when you talk back to us, and apparently a lot of people wanted to hear a song from our first album,” Brownstein said. “So we went and learned it for you.” As is to prove how long it had been, the band was immediately forced to execute a quick restart after a flubbed intro.
Indeed, for an act that is almost reflexively described as “tightly wound,” some of Sleater-Kinney’s best moments on Thursday night had a comfortable, disarming looseness. Noting that Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone were both buried in the cemetery just outside the venue, the band tore into a cover of the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” with Brownstein recruiting a fan to hold their cell phone light over a lyrics cheatsheet on the stage floor. And in set centerpiece “What’s Mine is Yours,” the band’s two stars extended the song’s instrumental breakdown in a spellbinding bit of improvisation, with Brownstein and Tucker’s guitars effortlessly entwining as Brownstein crept across the stage and lay her head on Tucker’s shoulder.
After mentioning that the band would be back in town in the spring for its proper tour, Brownstein pleaded, “We hope you come back, and please bring this kind of energy with you.” As long as she and Tucker do the same, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Bury Our Friends
The Center Won’t Hold
One More Hour
Worry With You
Dance Song ’97
What’s Mine Is Yours
Hunt You Down
A New Wave
Dig Me Out
Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)
Say It Like You Mean It