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Sleater-Kinney Doesn't Miss Beat

Pop music review: Simmering over a run-in with a heckler, the Oregon-based band produced a searing set at El Rey.

March 20, 1997|SARA SCRIBNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Post-Liz Phair, post-Bikini Kill, post-Hole, you'd think that the rock world would have gotten used to women in its ranks. But on Tuesday at the El Rey Theatre, as the Portland-based trio Sleater-Kinney opened for the headlining Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, someone was waiting with cultural ice water.

As soon as the three women broke into "Call the Doctor," the title song from their lauded 1996 album, the visceral high spirits were deflated by a man in the crowd who cussed loudly at Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Corin Tucker. Tucker delivered a few verbal missives and the heckler ignited a fight at the lip of the stage before he was ejected. Tucker seemed to simmer with anger throughout the rest of the show.

Remarkably, the group--singer-guitarist Tucker, potent guitarist Carrie Brownstein (who also sings) and stormy drummer Janet Weiss--overcame the unnerving episode to deliver a set that matched the buzz that has been building around the band since its 1994 formation in Olympia, Wash. Brownstein and Tucker were rooted in the radical feminist Riot Grrrl movement that sprouted around Olympia and that--to the dismay of its founders--became a media curiosity in the early '90s.

At the El Rey, Sleater-Kinney dug into the spirit of that movement while shaking off the brand-name cheesiness, and they delivered an even rawer power than they capture on "Dig Me Out," their electrifying new album that comes out April 8.

The well-honed but defiantly indie-rock album practically shimmies with such accessible touches as hand-claps, Brownstein's bottomed-out alto chants and even a tambourine.

But Tucker didn't pull out any ultra-pop props or moves at the El Rey. Rather, the group presented a businesslike set goosed only by Brownstein's cool, fluid rock-star moves, which bespoke a total delight at being onstage. Some of the good feelings that were sunk at the beginning of the show were buoyed later by cheering family members in the audience, to whom Brownstein dedicated one song.

Even without any overt bows to the crowd, Tucker is a rock-solid performer, and she reveled in the delicious pop elements of her new songs--shackle-busting punk about breaking free from life's constraints, punctuated with a punchy, Ramones-like "1-2-3-4!"

On "Little Babies," Tucker sang the lines, "Dum-dum-ditty-ditty-dum-dum-da-dum-do, all the little babies go I-I-I want to," with straight-faced aplomb. The notable lack of banter was overcome by highly personal songs, from the melodic smart bomb of "Not What You Want" to the celebratory punk yelp of "Words and Guitar."

Rock fans might have a way to go, but Sleater-Kinney has definitely arrived.

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