Sleater-Kinney at Metro, 2002

By Mark Guarino

In the daylight hours Thursday, the airwaves streamed with sobering speeches from the House and Senate, about why it’s in our interest to firebomb another country. But it was easy not to notice while flipping channels, since it had a similar dry delivery of a group of men discussing their afternoon golf game.   

The discussions carried into the night, except at Metro, it came in the voice of Carrie Brownstein, a singer whose torching high wail was a more appropriate soundtrack for anydialogue involving bloodshed, uncertainty and terror. “Are you singing let’s fight now/innocent people die, uh-oh/there are reasons to unite/is this why we unite?,” she cried as her bandmates in Sleater-Kinney riddled the room with thunder.   

Sleater-Kinney is not known as a strictly political band, even though its music is undeniably overt. With two guitars, drums and the electrifying vocal interplay between Brownstein and guitarist Corin Tucker, their inventive sound and assured playing are unlike any other band today. In the past few weeks, almost every rock tour that came through Chicago — from the Super Furry Animals up to Bruce Springsteen — has addressed the country’s rush to war in Iraq, but no band has tapped into the feeling of this hawkish time so well. Part of the energy of this band’s skewering pop-punk is the pent-up anxiety coming from feeling powerless but permanently engaged.   

Their show — the first of two sold-out nights — was an 80-minute bonfire. Rising from the Northwest in the mid-‘90s, Sleater-Kinney became a magnet for major media praise, even though they recorded (and still do) for a tiny label proudly named Kill Rock Stars. The adoration might be suspicious to those who never heard them (and you won’t if you listen to mainstream radio), but there is no denying that the band’s sixth album, “One Beat,” is their most accessible to date and finds them at the peak of their musicianship.   

Great bands work with a group mind and a new song like “Oh!” became a cooperative blast. Set to the rumble beats of Janet Weiss (currently rock’s most airtight drummer), it featured tiny inventive segments strung together, lined with three-part harmonies and punched up with taunting vocal exchange between the two guitarists. With Tucker pogoing and sashaying across the stage, it was pop music that was fun and subversive at once.   

Despite its early roots in crude punk, the trio frequently leaned into heavy swamp blues. “Sympathy” — a turnabout of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” complete with cowbell and “ooh-ooh’s” — featured Brownstein singing the sanctified praises of motherhood while gorging on thick, swaggering guitarwork.    

By night’s end, the band took on two male rock icons. Their rugged cover of Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” was capped on both ends with Weiss drumming while blowing a harp (possibly a rock first) and they followed up with an early favorite, “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” When the next generation of bands namecheck their musical mentors in songs, place all bets it’ll be this one.

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