PORTLAND, Ore. — Sleater-Kinney, arguably the most respected rock band of the post-Nirvana era next to Radiohead, played its final concert Saturday at the Crystal Ballroom. The second of a two-night hometown farewell, the concert sold out in five minutes and attracted fans from as far as Los Angeles and New York. Don't feel too bad, however, if you didn't know it was coming. Born of the ardently independent feminist punk movement riot grrrl, Sleater-Kinney thrived for more than a decade on a track parallel to the mainstream. Its farewell to that semi-underground America was musically majestic enough to fill a sports arena, but its spirit suited this artfully decaying theater in America's reigning bohemian town.
"This band has saved my life so many times, and I'm so grateful to have been a part of it," said Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney's windmilling lead guitarist and second singer, at the end of an intense, celebratory two-hour set. Her comment might have come from virtually anyone in the dancing, shouting, misty-eyed, smiling crowd. As Brownstein and her bandmates, vocalist-guitarist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss, locked instruments during telepathic jams and feverish punk throw-downs, fans responded with an intensity appropriate for the last spin of the soundtrack to their lives.
"For me, personally, it's an end of an era," said writer and video artist Cat Tyc, who first saw the band 10 years ago at the New York feminist rock night Meow Mix. "I experienced a significant life moment with every one of their albums. But I'll get over it," she said with a rueful laugh.
"I think it's really sad," said Han Vuong, up from Los Angeles for both weekend shows with two other California companions. Vuong estimated he'd seen Sleater-Kinney 20 times. "They're a great band, and they also stood for a lot," he continued. "They made the right decisions, all the time, and they were fearless in what they did. Music always needs that."
"They have something so fierce and, at the same time, so refined," said Bridget Wilson, a Portland-based fan who'd also seen the band multiple times. "Their dedication and their energy is so genuine. They're also declared feminists, and very straightforward about it. That doesn't exist in pop culture, ever."
Another fan had this to say: "You know how you wish you could have seen the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix or the Who with Keith Moon? Well, I am very fortunate and extremely grateful to live in a time when I can see Sleater-Kinney play live."
That fan was Eddie Vedder, offering witness during a two-song introduction to Sleater-Kinney's set. Vedder's band, Pearl Jam, has toured extensively with the trio, and their friendship bore whimsical fruit when Weiss joined a ukulele-strumming Vedder for the jazzy ditty "You Belong to Me."
Special guests became irrelevant once Brownstein and Tucker emerged and barreled into "The Fox," from the 2005 album "The Woods," which secured Sleater-Kinney's reputation as not "just a girl band," but heirs to the genre's most powerful family lines. On that song and nearly every other, Brownstein's guitar heroics, recalling Pete Townshend or even Jimi Hendrix at times, separated Sleater-Kinney from its punk past and secured the band a place in classic-rock Valhalla. Tucker's voice still retained its distinctive keening edge, but showed the nuance learned after years of training and touring. And Weiss turned her drum kit into a motion-platform ride, playing with expert force and agility.
With each member hitting her peak Saturday, Sleater-Kinney's most-lauded attribute -- the group's subtle and often startlingly inventive interplay -- was on full display. Tucker and Brownstein layered together guitar and vocal lines, sometimes easing into dynamically adventurous improvisations, only to turn on a dime and unite for some speedy dance-punk. Weiss provided the motor for her bandmates' tandem ride, her drum lines tapping into the mighty vigor of heavy metal. During these exchanges, neither songs nor the identities of the singers mattered. What fascinated was the group's creative process, emerging during each song like the topography on a raised map. In these moments, the trio exchanged delighted grins and it became clear that for Sleater-Kinney, nothing -- not feminist ideology, not independent business practices, not even the words of the band's own songs -- mattered as much as the unpredictable grace of collaboration.
Sleater-Kinney is not a jam band, however -- its songs are too visceral and its stance too radical for the happy touring scene that's given other improvising rock groups a home. This show presented Sleater-Kinney at the absolute height of its powers; one can only hope that the breakup will last, so that each of these talented women gets a chance to follow a new stream. Leaving fans -- and each other -- with a show none will forget, Sleater-Kinney departed in glory. And frankly, that's something great bands don't do nearly enough.