Friday Feburary 14th, 2003 at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in
Sleater-Kinney, The Black Keys, & V for Vendetta
My (then prospective) roommate told me about this show a full month before I moved to Boston. At that time, I imagined taking a leisurely train ride down to Providence, walking about the city in the late morning, stopping at a lovely café for lunch, spending some time exploring record and musical stores, having a nice dinner at the city's vegetarian eatery of note, seeing a lovely show, and then taking the train back to Boston late at night.
The reality is that the commuter rail doesn't return to Boston late at night. Even worse, the commuter rail doesn't return to Boston at all on weekends. Although I did lug my car to Boston and thusly all hopes weren't dashed, they were further crushed by arctic temperatures and winter storm warnings urging me to stay indoors, lest I suffer certain frostbite and permanent skin damage. So much for a scenic day in the regal city of Providence.
Instead, Dana and I (with the roommate backing out entirely) got a late start and found ourselves exiting Boston in rush hour traffic armed only with Mapquest directions to our unfamiliar destination. Through the guidance of some supreme hand, we arrived at the club and, after a few loops, found a delicious and free parking spot. Although only 7pm, a few dozen fans huddled by the front door peering into the glowing warmth of the club. I had made a few phone calls ahead of time and thus found my way in immediately where Dana and I sat on uncomfortable couches anxious for the show to begin at its advertised time.
In what I understand is somewhat unusual for the club, the doors didn't open until 8pm, and the opening act didn't begin until a little after 9pm. Rather than spending my time pressed against the wide, high stage, defending my spot, I spent some time walking around the club and looking for the random MOC kid who would be our lodging later in the evening. Besides, I could see a barricade between the audience and the stage constructed for photographers, so I wouldn't really need to fight the crowds to document the show.
Once we found our host, Mikey, I was informed I lacked the photo pass required to shoot from inside the barricade. Furthermore I would have to locate the impossibly unavailable road manager for Sleater-Kinney, and ask his permission to shoot a band that, apparently, doesn't like to be photographed, if I'd like the pass. With my plans dashed once more, I spent the remaining time being social and worrying about the photographs I wouldn't be getting.
Elsewhere on Too Much Rock you'll find my precise and accurate accounting of V for Vendetta's music. Obviously, little has changed so I won't go into the details. Although the duo of guitarist Michelle Marcheses and drummer Cara Hyde still traffic in tight, complicated, and somewhat cold math rock, their interaction with the hometown audience was warm, friendly and engaging. Marcheses seems as though she might be a bit reluctant in her role behind the microphone, but her passion makes up for any social foibles she may commit inadvertently.
With a set of songs (or possibly only song titles as many of the band's songs are instrumentals) covering vaguely socio-political topics, the band preached to the hometown crowd made up of long-time fans, family, friends, and, now, eager new recruits delighted to see another all-grrl band on the stage. Although the band's music can be terribly engrossing, that requires a level of intimacy I was unable to achieve in such a large venue. And while I found several of the band's less angular compositions moving, I wasn't able to place myself into the mindset where I lost myself in the shifting time signatures and quick-paced mutating guitar melodies.
Whatever disappointments I may have created during V for Vendetta's set were quickly paled by the painful displeasure created by The Black Keys. Despite the fact that The Black Keys were handpicked by Sleater-Kinney to open their tour, and despite the fact that Rolling Stone called the band's CD the best debut album of 2002, and despite the fact that Spin and Magnet and nearly every other music rag gushes over this band, let me give it to you honestly: they're crap.
The recent resurgence of bands laying claim on rock & roll's bluesy roots has gone much too far if the Akron duo of The Black Keys gets any press in forward-thinking music media. The band's stripped-down sound is entirely suburban and it's obscene to read press that mentions this band in the same sentence as Blind Lemon Jefferson and that revered ilk. The sad truth is the band emulates Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jonny Lang, but, of course, even these comparisons are hyperbole. To my evidently unhip ears, the band seemed no more than a second-rate bar band that could be heard any night of the week, in any city, playing "original" songs copied from Hendrix albums.
Part of the traditional press's wood for the band is derived from the fact that guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney are reportedly in their late twenties. Although Auerbach's voice is worn appropriately for the genre, the band's lyrics are still written from the perspective of a slacker twenty-seven year old white kid from the Midwest. I wonder if Rolling Stone was equally as impressed with "Babysitting Blues" from Adventures in Babysitting, or Lisa's Simpson's "Moanin' Lisa Blues". Hell, I'd rather go see Bleeding Gums Murphy (RIP) than The Black Keys.
During the band's performance I noted I wasn't alone in my disdain... at least not among us uneducated, close-minded, Sleater-Kinney fans. The dissatisfied and disinterested always mill about the perimeter of clubs; during The Black Keys, that minority grew to include nearly a quarter of the audience. Sure, there was applause and cheers for the band (there is no accounting for taste after all) but I believe there was also a polite contingent, and a larger body of those caught up in the spirit of the show or simply unwilling (or unable) to leave their post in the crowd that packed the front and sides of the stage.
When not watching the abject horror of The Black Keys with gaped jaw, I circled the club looking for entertainment. A $2 slice of cheese pizza, a $.75 game of pool (which I won handedly), lots of people watching, and several random photographs later, the band exited the stage and a palpable excitement rose through the club.
While I've seen (and reported upon) Sleater-Kinney many times before, each performance is generally unique and contains its own thrills. The band seems to play for the club as well as their audience. Change the venue and the show may be entirely different. Seeing Sleater-Kinney amongst an audience of over 1000 is certainly a first for me. Past shows have included more intimate venues or even house shows, but those stories come from the sleepy Midwest. This is the big-bad East Coast, and so I worked to erase my preconceptions.
Although terribly crowded around the stage, I was able to secure a vantage point in the balcony that afforded me a reasonable view of the band. If not close enough (at least for a blind bat like me) to see complete facial expressions, the balcony does stretch closely across the wide stage, making it a nearly ideal locale for fans of the band, but possibly not fans of the raucous show experience. If I only would have secured chairs and a table when in the venue early in the evening, I could have had that classy nightclub experience I've always dreamt of. I suppose I would have had to bring my own candle, and paying the bartender to deliver cranberry juice to the table may have been pricey, but all said, the balcony is the place to be.
Sleater-Kinney, of course, put on a strong show that catered to their audience while still remaining genuine. Their music is strong, syncopated and direct without being stripped down. Sleater-Kinney doesn't hail back to rock's roots, but rather to the roots of rock's constant check, punk. There is also an undeniable pop sensibility to the band's music as melody plays an immeasurable role. This predilection to song is often realized by not only vocalist Corin Tucker's vocals, but by her guitar as well. This leaves backing duties to both Carrie Brownstein's vocals and her guitar a task she is always up to. Drummer Janet Weiss is explosive and energetic. At the end of the band's hour plus set, she still had the energy to provide one of the most athletic drum fills (nearly a drum solo) of the night. Each player seems more comfortable and proficient with her instruments than in previous years, but it's Weiss who seems to have stepped up her playing the most.
Although the biggest cheers of the night came when the band played "Little Babies" from 1997's Dig It Out, it was another seldom played song from that album, "Dance Song '97" which drew the broad smiles across the faces of many of the band's fans. While the band is promoting their latest release, One Beat, the setlist didn't seem to favour any particular period over another.
Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel is the largest venue I'd seen Sleater-Kinney perform in. The band, however, was perfectly at home on the expansive stage, and in front of the large audience. The extra yardage simply served as an invitation for Brownstein and Tucker to stretch their legs quiet literally in the case of high-kicking Brownstein. Although the ever-immaculately dressed Tucker wasn't able to be so nimble in her heels, she still ebbed about the stage, interacting with her bandmates and the audience.
That connection to the audience is perhaps the most miraculous part of the band's show. Despite the size of the audience, there were real two-way conversations with the various fans crammed near the stage. During their set, the band even invited several couples on stage for a dance competition where the audience served as judge. As atrocious and fun as the dancing was, my vantage point (now stage right) didn't allow me to see the winners or the slow-dance intimacies that earned them their prize. Surprisingly, this stunt seemed anything but. This wasn't Green Day inviting someone on stage to play drums, or The Vandals looking for a guest vocalist; this was the members of Sleater-Kinney interacting with their community as they have done for over a decade.
For their entire career, Sleater-Kinney has been on the verge of a major breakout. With the ever-savvier Kill Rock Stars label backing the band, appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and the like, a strong back catalog of material, and a show that plays surprisingly well on a large stage, can a hit song for a broad audience be anything but inevitable?
As the band's encore ended, Mikey, Dana and I slipped out the front door towards the icy car. Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves in a Bickford's on the outskirts of town. This, too, wasn't part of the quaint vision I had of the artisan Providence, but at 1am it's hard to find anything wrong with pancakes ...even for a grumpy know-it-all like me.