Show me your riffs. This command, once emblazoned on a Sleater-Kinney T-shirt, ran through my head like a ticker-tape message as I watched the band during their final show in Philadelphia. Here they were, after all those years of working hard to shake off constricting labels like “riot grrrl” and “chick band,” playing to an absurdly sold-out house. They’d not-so-gladly suffered the fools of mainstream and underground media, who wanted to exploit their gender as if their success was somehow based on the fortune of having been born with X chromosomes.
Yet Sleater-Kinney persevered on their terms. They showed us their riffs. And in doing so they subverted the original malevolent sneer of that slogan, appropriating one of the more odious catcall putdowns and inverting it to serve the idea that anyone can pick up a guitar or pound on the drums. From the incipient rush of the first few songs to the rapturously received encores of the show, Sleater-Kinney showed us that what mattered most was what most critics ignored: that throughout their career, they’ve rocked harder and better than just about any of their counterparts, male or female.
What Sleater-Kinney could not do was control the equatorial heat afflicting the city like an incurable disease. You might think a venue routinely hosting larger name acts could cough up a few measly bucks for a decent air-conditioning system. Much to Sleater-Kinney’s chagrin, this was not the case as temperatures soared perilously close to the 100-degree mark. While the bar certainly benefited from this wrong turn of meteorological events, the band visibly suffered. Though they came out with all musical cylinders firing, the convection-oven effect of 2,000 people in a cement-walled enclosure during the worst heat wave to hit Philly in decades wore the band down; you could see the energy seeping from their pores as the set progressed. It prompted guitar hero Carrie Brownstein to declare early on, “It’s fuckin’ hot. It’s gonna be loose tonight.” Yet a flubbed note here and a missed chord change there was not enough to kill these rock stars or hinder their hot rock.
Always spoken of in the most reverential terms as the primo live band, Sleater-Kinney delivered. For over an hour, they glibly peeled off song after song from their formidable oeuvre, leaning most heavily on The Woods, and Brownstein acknowledged as much: “We love The Woods.” They launched effortlessly from opener “Start Together” into a pulverizing version of “The Fox.” The song took on a steamy, creepy groove, buoyed by Corin Tucker’s sultry croon. You could hear deep Delta blues lurking beneath their edgy pop façade, as in a bruising version of “What’s Mine Is Yours” as well as a teeth-rattling rendition of “Light Rail Coyote.” Staples “Jumpers” and “Entertain” dripped with punchy, majestic rock delirium, the audience responding ecstatically and singing every word.
The band took many opportunities throughout the night to demonstrate their skill with several extemporaneous instrumental moments. Not exactly Burning Man in length, Sleater-Kinney still proved themselves among the most underrated musicians this side of Guitar World or Modern Drummer. Janet Weiss beat her drums like Keith Moon reincarnated. Brownstein, in particular, displayed the impact of the band’s arena tour with fellow Pacific Northwesterners Pearl Jam. She defied the heat with constant Pete Townsend-style jumps and kicks, as well as a ripping Hendrixian solo mid-set.
The night rounded a bizarre corner during a particularly pounding version of “Ironclad.” A big male fan (in size and zeal) in a loud Acapulco shirt ascended the stage. Brownstein and Tucker exchanged twin deer-in-headlights expressions of shock. He attempted to surf the crowd, yet it parted as if the man were Moses. No one appeared injured.
As they completed an explosive rendition of “Words and Guitar,” the band left the stage for an intermission before the inevitable encore. They returned to deliver five more songs, all from older albums. To hammer the final nail in their Philly concert coffin, the band performed the ancient “I Want To Be Your Joey Ramone.” All hands were on the good ones as each band member bid adieu by shaking the eager hands of audience members in the front row. They gave out bottles of water to the dehydrated masses, as they had throughout the set. Such moments of magnanimity were not for show as Sleater-Kinney genuinely care about their fans. That, as much as their music, is why they won’t soon be forgotten.