Photos by Rosie Accola
To truly love a band is to offer yourself as a bulwark of support, expecting little acknowledgement in return. While your bedroom wall may be plastered with posters of the band members’ faces, it’s unlikely that they would be able to recognize yours in a crowd. Still, is there anything more satisfying than seeing one of your favorite bands live?
Seeing Sleater-Kinney in the flesh at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival was equal parts profound and strange. I had been listening to them since I was a junior in high school blasting All Hands on the Bad One between classes.
On July 18, I was brimming with three years worth of maniacal gratitude and love. Sleater-Kinney got me through high school, and nothing could stop me from seeing them… that was until a torrential downpour forced the festival to close resulting in what could only be described as an apocalypse sponsored by American Apparel.
Once my friend and I took shelter on the train, it was announced that the festival would resume later that evening. The Chicago Reader quipped on Twitter, “Saturday storm causes evacuation at #P4kfest. Resumed at 4:20. Many pot jokes ensue.”
Eventually, my friends and I made our way back to Pitchfork soaked, but otherwise unscathed. Our tickets were destroyed, but security saw our sopping wet clothes and let us back in with sympathetic nods. At this point, we were not only concert-goers but champions of rock-n-roll. We had survived hurricane Pitchfork, and a ticketless entry.
The rest of the day’s performers seemed happy to be able to play. Despite what his name may suggest, Kurt Vile of Kurt Vile and the Violators was in a chipper mood noting during his set that the sun was peaking through the clouds. The New Pornographers were smiling despite wishing that Pitchfork had given them, “just .5 more stars.” Later that night Future Islands frontman, Samuel T. Herring, proved that he was both limber and passionate performer by simultaneously singing, crying, and dancing sensuously.
Then, just as dusk began to fall, Sleater- Kinney stepped onto the Blue Stage. At this point, I was already a hot mess. My euphoria-addled fan brain tried to vomit the media I lovingly consume. I thought to myself, “wow, Nance from Portlandia first plays the guitar,” as I watched Carrie Brownstein strap on a white electric guitar that dwarfed her.
I was struck by how real they seemed. Brownstein plays with a wide-set stance, with her elbows akimbo looking fairly awkward. Corin Tucker’s vocals shattered the studio recording, howling and reaching up into the night sky. The raw power of Sleater-Kinney cannot be translated onto a record. It transcends all digital media with a force that is combative. The band doesn’t want to pick a fight, they want to shred the pre-conceived notions of the rock industry — and it’s evident in their wild sound. The fury with which drummer Janet Weiss pounds at her set was only one obvious example of this. Sleater-Kinney didn’t just headline Pitchfork, they owned it.
Sleater-Kinney’s eight-year hiatus from touring didn’t lessen their ability as performers. If anything, it allowed them to cultivate their stage presence and reconnect with the joys of touring. Most Pitchfork acts played 45 minutes to an hour, but Sleater-Kinney played for almost two, keeping their momentum all the while. It would be easy to play songs from their most recent release, 2014’s No Cities to Love, but Sleater-Kinney dug deep into their catalogue, which spans almost two decades.
During the set Tucker and Brownstein would often play facing each other daring one another to play harder, forcing the power chords to dig deeper and ache more. During “Jumpers,” Tucker’s vocals transformed into a blood-curdling howl forcing the crowd reckon with the isolation that the song itself confronts as Tucker shrieks, “I took a taxi to the gate/ I will not go to school again/ 4 seconds was the longest wait.”
“Entertain” was transcendental, reverting back to their raucous riot-grrrl roots, they careened through the song standing at odds with the entertainment industry asking, “So you’re here because you want to be entertained? Don’t look away, please look away.” Despite the oppositional nature of songs like “Entertain,” Brownstein was still charming and warm towards the crowd.
“Don’t worry, this song definitely isn’t about you guys,” she joked before launching into No Cities to Love. “Actually,” she said later, “I lied about that song. I wrote it in a hotel room in Chicago so I guess it is sort of about you guys.” She also dedicated ”A New Wave” to Bob’s Burgers character Tina Belcher saying,“This one goes out to our friend Tina Belcher.” Sleater-Kinney collaborated with the creators of Bob’s Burgers to make the music video for “A New Wave.”
The video features a star-struck Tina and her siblings dancing around in Tina’s horse-poster- laden bedroom while animated versions of Corin, Carrie, and Janet rock out beside them. In a way, Tina makes a great Sleater-Kinney fan. She’s usually awkward and quiet, but she pogos along to Sleater-Kinney with a serene tiny smile on her face. Sleater-Kinney’s music gives her a space to be herself. The video is represents a safe space to explore music and punk which Sleater-Kinney continues to provide for so many teenage girls.
As I was trying to get up as close to the stage as possible, elbowing my way through the crowd, I heard some guy say, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like they’re the Rolling Stones.” The remark irritated me. Why bother to compare Sleater-Kinney and the Rolling Stones? They’re both great bands with expansive discographies and all of the band members are talented, it’s useless to try to pit them against each other.
When my mom was in college, she had a poster of Mick Jagger in her dorm room. She maintained a level of Rolling Stones fanaticism that I find admirable. There are traces of that music-centric loyalty in my own weird alliance with Sleater-Kinney. They might not be the Rolling Stones but they’re my Rolling Stones.
It’s important to cultivate both a critical and loving discourse with the music industry. Love it boundlessly, gorge endlessly on basslines and T-shirts and trivia, but work to recognize that musicians are people, too. Seeing Sleater-Kinney live helped me realize just how real they are. It was incredible and raw, and it reminded me of why it’s so important to cultivate not only worship for this industry, but to see it from all angles. This hunger for music that I’ve reconciled with can be best explained by who else but Brownstein, “hunger makes me a modern girl.”