“America’s greatest living rock band” is a title you wouldn’t take lightly from one of your country’s top critics. Portland’s Sleater-Kinney have to live up to these words by Marcus Greil, but at tonight’s show at the Roundhouse – their first in London since they went on a hiatus nearly ten years ago – they make a good case to justify their critical and fan worshippers.
I can admit to not really knowing much about Sleater-Kinney before their surprise return at the tail end of last year; I was only 13 when the band went on hiatus in 2006, but their acclaimed new album No Cities To Love proved to me that this wasn’t a half-arsed cash-in. Their unshakeable purpose was cemented in their emergence from Riot Grrrl and Queercore movements in the mid-90s, and it hasn’t waned one iota.
Guitarist Corin Tucker states halfway through the show, “We’re very happy to be a band again”, a remark not forced in the slightest. The onstage chemistry between Tucker, guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss fuses them as a force to still be reckoned with, putting most young bands to shame. Brownstein plays restrained wrecker to Tucker’s graceful screamer on opening song “Price Tag”, producing a call to arms from the first notes of the riff.
Despite the band inevitably plugging their new LP, they keep a diverse set with airings of older cuts such as the pounding “Entertain” and “The End of You”, all showcasing Brownstein and Tuckers’ varied creative vocal styles –heartbreakingly honest and vicious as they hurtle around the circular Roundhouse. Janet Weiss also proves a formidably slick stickswoman, and the trio is complimented on stage with the addition of instrumentalist Katie Harkin from Leeds act Sky Larkin, who does a stellar job on guitar and keys.
The group’s live power is enhanced by their modesty - even Brownstein can’t help but crack a shy smile from time to time. Though they can belt-out tunes like “Oh!”, they are contained, allowing space between their shredding chords, giving their words of defiance ever more levity. New song “No Cities To Love”, which Brownstein points out to her audience’s delight is not about London, already feels anthemic and segues effortlessly into the stomping “Rollercoaster” from 2005 album The Woods. Many gigs suffer from the curse of the mid-set lull, but Sleater-Kinney don’t do tedium and their show hardly drags for a second – it takes a truly special band to achieve that.
After a superb closing rendition of “Jumpers” - the melody building up ever more infectiously during the song - the band disappear almost too soon. Their return to the stage is led by Tucker, guitar-less, raising her fist shouting “gimme equality, gimme respect, gimme love!”, before launching into “Gimme Love”. She then collapses to the floor, rage flowing through her bones. “Let’s Call it Love” spirals into a euphoric extended jam, the band making it look effortless. The one-two of “Modern Girl” and “Dig Me Out” cap the set with emotion and power.
Sleater-Kinney give the audience more than what they want and thrive through their own effortless determination. Though SK vanished from the scene for a decade, Tucker and Weiss concentrating on side projects and Brownstein helming hilarious show Portlandia during the time, their return seems so essential. Tonight they prove their importance to rock, racking up a new generation of fans in the process – I count myself among them.