It’s surreal to think that Sleater-Kinney might have had something to prove on this tour. The endless outpouring of goodwill towards the band on their return in 2014 from a lengthy hiatus, as well as the unanimous acclaim for 2015’s invigorating No Cities To Love and the celebratory shows that followed, was a rare example of how a cherished band can reunite and actually enhance their legacy, rather than tarnish it.
So much of Sleater-Kinney’s appeal was in how formidable and unbreakable the trio appeared to be (a definitive line-up established since 1996), that when drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band last year just one month before the release of ninth album The Centre Won’t Hold, it came as a genuine shock. This put an unfair cloud over the subsequent album before it had even been released. That it actually turned out to be a really rewarding record shouldn’t be a surprise, although its more left-field stylistic flourishes weren’t for everyone (“St. Vincent ruined Sleater-Kinney,” was the cry from those who felt the album’s producer was to blame).
This brings us to tonight, with a curious Barrowland crowd unsure of what to expect as a new-look Sleater-Kinney take to the stage, with Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker joined by touring musicians Katie Harkin, Toko Yasuda and new drummer Angie Boylan. No one need have worried.
As with the record, The Centre Won’t Hold’s title track is an inspired opener, its chain gang backing vocals and clanging percussion building in tension before exploding into a furious charge of guitars that ignites a more than up-for-it Glasgow crowd. This is all enhanced by a quite spectacular light show that proves to be perfectly calibrated to each song and is genuinely transformative in elevating the whole experience throughout.
It’s an epic set that crams in 27 songs, 10 of which are from the latest album. This bold showing of confidence for their new material shows that Sleater-Kinney are very much a band for the here and now; the complete antithesis to a reunited band coasting on nostalgia. New highlights include the twisting industrial grind of Ruins, the expanded line-up allowing for the song’s deep undercurrent of bubbling electronics to really come to the fore, rising with Tucker’s banshee wails in the extended outro as the stage darkens to a dramatic blood red like a scene from a Dario Argento movie. This heady dive into darker, almost gothic territory is thrilling in a live setting, the blackened disco stomp of Bad Dance already feeling like a fan favourite as Brownstein visibly relishes the communal singing of its end-times chorus.
The band’s joy in playing together is infectious with constant shared glances and smiles of approval, Brownstein in particular having a ball as she throws out her trademark guitar hero scissor kicks and slinky side struts amidst blistering solos and ragged riffs. It really can’t be stressed enough how exciting she is to watch and how vital her playing has been in inspiring a generation who didn’t see themselves represented in the rock music canon of old.
The band’s back catalogue is given a good airing with a healthy mixture of setlist staples and surprising deep cuts. A tender One More Hour feels especially poignant while the encore sees a rare playing of the heart-wrenching Good Things (from 1996’s Call the Doctor) and ends with a wild brace of Words and Guitar and Dig Me Out that is met with near hysteria. That said, 2005’s The Woods still feels like the band’s magnum opus and its songs tonight remain unimpeachable. What’s Mine Is Yours has that breakdown, Brownstein peeling off a serpentine blues riff that induces goosebumps and pin-drop silence before the songs crawls its way back to a swaggering finish; there’s also a thunderous run through The Fox, its fuzz pedal assault of an opening sounding like a jetplane landing in your skull. Best of all is a set-closing Entertain that is so furiously delivered and rapturously received that it feels like the band and audience are collectively lifted from the ground into another realm, the song serving as the band’s ultimate mission statement for uncompromising reinvention and creativity: “If your art is done / Johnny, get your gun.”
Sleater-Kinney aren’t done, and you’d be a fool to think otherwise.