‘Ring out the Old, ring in the new. Ring out the false, ring in the True’.
There could be no better way to do this than watching Sleater-Kinney play a New Year’s Eve show at The Masonic in San Francisco. Bay Area band and Overblown favourites Phosphene were in attendance. Their Breaker EP was one of our favourites of 2016 so we were delighted to discover Rachel Frankel and Matt Esteves Hemmerich from the band would share their experience of the night with us. What developed was all about love affairs, love of each other, love of Sleater-Kinney and most of all love to fight the world’s troubles with. Here’s the night of 31st December 2016 in Rachel and Matt’s own words:
Rachel: The first Sleater-Kinney song I ever knowingly heard was “Entertain,” thanks to a 2007 mix CD (those were the days!) from my friend Amy. While it was a bit harsher then for my tamer, folk-tinged, Elliott Smith-obsessed ears, I knew from the moment I heard Janet Weiss’ heart-pounding intro that I had been exposed to something truly special. There was an undeniable gravity to that kick, as if Janet meant to sink the beater all the way through the drum panel and rip it open. It was angry, fierce, and unapologetic––and I would eventually come to learn there was plenty more where that came from.
Matt: As fate would have it, “Entertain” was also the very first song I heard from Sleater-Kinney circa ’05. I remember having MTV on as I prepped a bourgeois pepperoni Hot Pocket in the kitch. My ears instantly perked when I heard Janet’s thunderous drum beat kick open the track. I fell in love with that song, as well as their other singles from that LP, yet it took me years to truly dive into their catalogue. I blame ADD.
Rachel: As we sat waiting for the Thermals to come onstage, we learned there was another nightclub massacre in Istanbul, killing 39 people. This has been the way of such a cruel year––ricocheting between incredible triumphs and waves of tragedy and unrest. It’s all one can do to not feel in the middle of a bipolar maelstrom.
Matt: New rule: never check your phone’s newsfeed at a gig.
Rachel: Bowie’s “Rock ‘N Roll Suicide” pounded through my ears and I practically felt my brain bend to the weight of it all. How many precious, irreplaceable musicians did we lose this year? Do all my female friends and I have to get IUDs now? Who’s the ninth court justice going to be? Is America going to literally sink into the ocean under a Trump presidency? All I knew was that I’ve never been more ready to hear Corin Tucker scream her fucking head off.
Matt: I think a majority of decent, thoughtful people are concerned about the country’s trajectory. America is the Titanic, and us passengers are split on where to steer the ship. I’m the last person to visit for optimistic platitudes, but the best thing to do is transmute fear into action. If anything was clear about the crowd at this show, it was that we’re a collective, we’re family.
Rachel: The Thermals took the stage and immediately commanded attention. Hutch yelped over his gritty Telecaster and Kathy’s low, quick-moving undercurrent, while Westin kept the crashing constant. I kept waiting to hear more cuts from The Body, The Blood, The Machine and Now We Can See, but they at least made up for those omissions with frenetic energy and an earnest encouragement towards the audience to donate to Planned Parenthood as a New Year’s resolution.
Matt: They certainly set the tone for the rest of the eve with their thrashing set. Rachel got me into The Thermals way back when we were just friends, so I’ve got sentimental attachments,.
Rachel: After stepping out for a drink in between sets, we frantically returned once Corin, Janet, Carrie, and Katie Harkin walk on stage. They opened with “The Fox,” always a crowd favorite. But it’s the next song, “Far Away,” that just undid me. Carrie’s menacing guitar sounded like snapping jaws as she jumped. Corin’s fearful pleas reference a horrifying day in September 2001––a day that’s over 15 years old, but somehow it feels closer than ever before with the approaching administration.
Matt: I never thought I’d hear such an sinister track about a fox. LEAVE THAT DUCK ALONE. Throughout their set, it became more crystal that Sleater-Kinney’s music is just as relevant, and potent, now as it was over twenty years ago. This wasn’t a nostalgia act, but a reaffirmation of a mission statement. Janet, Corin, and Carrie are still as powerful and dangerous together and ain’t gonna put up with anyone’s shit.
Rachel: The band continued to cycle through some of their best from over the years––particular highlights including “Oh!,” “Little Babies,” “Get Up,” and “Wilderness.” “Jumpers” sneakily followed, and the tears came again.
“There is a bridge adorned and famed/The golden spine of engineering/Whose back is heavy with my weight”
Having called San Francisco home for nearly 9 years, this song holds a particularly special place for me and many particularly emotional memories of friendships and relationships beginning and ending, not to mention the weight many are carrying with all that’s happened this past year. As on The Woods, “Jumpers” was followed by “Modern Girl,” and the gigantic room filled with the feminist chorus of my dreams.
Matt: There were countless moments where I was either enthralled by the intensity of their performance or emotionally gutted. Depending on the track, it was simultaneous. I struggled with severe depression during adolescence, so “Jumpers,” a number about suicidal jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, sent chills down my spine. It’s arguably Sleater-Kinney’s darkest song in their discography. The closing crescendo where Carrie shouts the mantra “Four seconds was the longest wait” had me internally weeping.
Also, can we please give props to Janet for playing drums and harmonica on “Modern Girl”?
Rachel: Before I know it, I heard Janet’s fiery intro to “Entertain” again, all these years later. I couldn’t help screaming for joy and felt the tension of the past year slip onto the floor. A feisty Carrie shepherded the band through a unique, longer version of the song as the clock ticked close to midnight.
Matt: “Entertain” was fucking incredible. Rarely have I seen a fluid, yet commanding rendition performed like that. It was hypnotic.
Rachel: At 11:59, everyone looked up to see a fabulous silver tinsel ball drop from the ceiling, reading “Sleater-Kinney 2017,” and everyone counted down from 10. I turned to Matt and shared a kiss, right before we were literally covered in black and gold balloons that cascaded down the balcony into the pit. Everyone was laughing and smiling and, even if just for a second, we all seemed to forget about the proverbial dumpster fire that was 2016. Carrie picked up a rainbow pride flag an audience member tossed her, and places it on Katie Harkin like a cape.
Matt: To quote Corin, we “Let it all go at once/Not piece by piece/But like a whole bucket of stars.” There was a glorious bliss that engulfed the crowd, and for a second, I forgot that my bladder was about to explode.
Rachel: Corin briefly reflected on the dear musicians lost in the past year, and encouraged the audience to fight back with love and nothing else before appropriately diving into “Gimme Love.” After “Dance Song ’97” and “You’re No Rock ‘N Roll Fun,” they invited Kathy from the Thermals back onstage to join them for the best cover of George Michael’s “Faith” I can ever expect to hear in my lifetime. If that wasn’t enough, they finished off the night with Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” with Hutch and Corin on vocals along with Britt Daniels from Spoon on guitar and vocals. The band said goodbye to a cheering, awe-inspired crowd, and we all left with balloons, ridiculous hats, and a newfound hope in tow.
Matt: I was hoping for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or “Careless Whisper,” but their tribute was excellent, regardless. It was a real treat, and moving gesture, to hear George Michael and David Bowie ushered into a new year they couldn’t personally attend. This was certainly one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I’d give it 5 stars, two thumbs up and a swipe right.
Illustrations by Rachel Frankel.
Phosphene released the Breaker EP in April 2016. Get it here
Sleater-Kinney release the Live in Paris album on Sub Pop on 27th January 2017. Get it here