Photographs by Sean Chin.
Long heralded for being formative and also long removed from the live music scene, Sleater-Kinney’s return to Toronto was both a nostalgic trip to the past and a celebration of their current output.
Last in Toronto in September 2005 – then opening for Pearl Jam at the Air Canada Centre – the best news about Sleater-Kinney is that they’re absolutely doing their reunion right. That is to say: they’re not just touring for the sake of touring. They have an excellent new album that could stand on its own, even without the three-piece’s revered history.
Most bands embarking on reunion tours seem so focused on the touring circuit because that’s (surprise, surprise) where the money is. You get in, you play the hits that made your career, and then you get out. With the rise of festival popularity, it seems that every year more bands are popping back up from hiatus or getting over “creative differences” to play the crap out of their “remember us?” card. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for happy returns. It’s just refreshing to see a band doing it on a new album that’s actually worth the fanfare.
Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love is a fantastic album. If they were a new band, I’d go see them anyway if they had made that record.
Of course most new bands wouldn’t be a couple of warm bodies away from selling out the Sound Academy.
Fans of the band, both new and old alike, braved the trek out to Toronto’s infamous venue, packing the floor like sardines in an effort to get as close to possible to Corin Tucker (vocals, guitar); Carrie Brownstein (guitar, vocals); and Janet Weiss (drums).
Opening the night was Lizzo, a 26-year-old rising alt-hip hop act with as big a personality as her hair might suggest. The Minnesota artist has visited Toronto her fair share of times in the last couple of years and time spent on the road has undoubtedly helped boost her stage presence. Not that she’s hurting in that department.
Bounding on stage after her DJ took the audience through a brief auditory Riot Grrrl history, Lizzo launched into “Lizzie Bordon” and made quick moves to prove she was a natural fit for a Sleater-Kinney opening spot. It was her crowd to win over and boy, oh boy, was she both aware of and up for the challenge.
Between throwing out cookies to the crowd for “Batches & Cookies” and throwing down for “Bus Passes And Happy Meals” (both songs from her 2013 album Lizzobangers), Lizzo brought charisma and a strong voice to the stage – embodying everything you’ve come to relate to the Riot Grrrl movement and genre in her own outlandish way.
The crowd was understandably riled up by the time Sleater-Kinney took to the stage, the band putting their new offerings firmly on the table by opening with “Price Tag”, the No Cities To Love album opener, and its follow up, “Fangless”. On stage, the band’s big light show and use of a wind machine certainly helped give movement to an otherwise fairly static stage setup: Brownstein on one side, Tucker on the other, Weiss at the back, and additional instrumentalist Katie Harkin tucked in the corner.
Crowd reception to the two new ones was warm, but it was the double up of “Oh!” (One Beat, 2002) and “Start Together” (The Hot Rock, 1999) that saw the energy truly pick up.
With eight studio albums to their name (stretching from 1995’s self-titled to 2015’s No Cities To Love), there was an obvious assortment of material on hand. Truth be told, it was easy to tell the difference between the new songs and the older offerings, audience reaction aside.
Where the old numbers tend to be more experimental in tempo and also focus much more on its verses, the more recent work is structurally more understandable. The verses are still good, but it’s all for the purposes of leading into and highlighting the choruses. As a fan of melody, I can’t complain about them moving in this direction – it just made the eras of work stand out from one another quite markedly. The jolting stop-start guitar of “Surface Envy” and single “A New Wave” (a song I will now forever happily associate with Bob’s Burgers) highlighted more of the new.
“Entertain”, from 2005’s The Woods, was a set highlight. It started sinister with Brownstein gazing at the crowd as if she were challenging everyone there – but as a vocalist, Brownstein otherwise seems tentative. This is surprising, especially when pairing it to her obvious level of comfort with a guitar. To off-set that, Tucker did much of the vocal lifting and did so very well, bringing the ending of “Entertain” to the hookiest moment of the night.
Banter was kept fairly minimal, Tucker offering up one political protest on Planned Parenthood by saying: “Give me respect, give me equality, give me love,” before starting Sleater-Kinney’s lengthy encore. Ending their hour-and-45 minute set by bringing Lizzo and her crew back on stage put a celebratory cap to the ending of triumphs – the band ending their first leg of the No Cities tour in Toronto.
It’s cheesy to call a reunion tour triumphant, but it feels so very apt in this instance. Sleater-Kinney is back and much like their new offerings, this is a very good thing indeed.
Thanks to Collective Concerts for media access.