Much ink and digital bandwith have been spilled to extol the influence and importance of Sleater-Kinney, the long-running Washington state indie/alternative/riot grrrl band, all of it valid. But the vibrancy and sheer brilliance of the band as a live act, and not just a talking point, might be severely underrated.

Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein are about to wrap up a tour that included three dates in New York, two at Brooklyn Steel and one at the smaller, 650-capacity Racket. The second Brooklyn Steel show, which we attended, was a master class in how to balance musical chops, earworm melodies, punk attitude and even some humor (Brownstein is known for her comedic work on “Portlandia” and other shows and movies), as the band hammered away at the edges of its well-structured arrangements, seemingly risking train wrecks with its enthusiasm, but never going off the rails. It was an exercise in tension and release without the release, and the building energy of unease was wired throughout the entire set.

Tucker and Brownstein, who each play guitar and sing, were backed by a taut band comprising Angela Boylan (drums), Toko Yasuda (keyboards) and Kristina Lieberson (bass and synthesizers).

Ominous piped-in music set the mood as the band took the stage at the former steel plant in Williamsburg before S-K eased into “Hell,” the opening track from latest album “Little Rope,” released in January. Rather than blast out with a fast and heavy starter, the band chose a song with a squishier intro that eventually leads to a rocker. It quickly became clear that Brownstein’s guitar was the lead voice in the band, mixed unusually high and providing slashing lines for the vocals and other instruments to hang from for dear life. This unusual structure was the perfect vehicle for songs that unsettle.

Brownstein took over lead vocals for “Needlessly Wild,” another tune from “Little Rope,” before the title track to 2019’s “The Center Won’t Hold.” Before “No Cities to Love,” she noted, “This is a song not about Brooklyn or Manhattan or New York in general.” The slinky “Hunt You Down,” another “Little Rope” selection, was another high point. “Oh!” from 2002’s “One Beat” was played for the first time on tour, followed by S-K’s first performance of “Dance Song ’97” since 2016, according to Brownstein dedicated the mournful tune to the late Mimi Parker of the band Low, who covered the song for the 2022 S-K tribute album, “Dig Me In.” “This is a gift from her,” said Brownstein, who led the band through Low’s slowed-down version. “You’re the one that I saw/ You’re the one that I want,” S-K harmonized.

Tucker’s smooth yet dangerous emotive vocals, as well as Brownstein’s shredding guitar work, animated “Six Mistakes,” another one from the new record. “Modern Girl” earned a big crowd reaction before the main set ended with the “Little Rope” song “Untidy Creatures.” The four-track encore included one of the most enjoyable songs in the S-K catalog, “Say It Like You Mean It,” also from “Little Rope.” Brownstein called it “a banger” in an interview, and she’s right: it has hooks, it has emotion and it has Tucker’s beautiful vocal intonation. Recorded by an artist outside of the indie/alternative echo chamber, it might be a hit, but that didn’t matter tonight: for everyone on stage and the sold-out crowd in the 1,800-capacity room, it was their song, and that’s what counted.

Photo by Chris Hornbecker

Leave a Reply