After spending midday Saturday darting and jumping across East Portland for errands – getting quarters-for-laundry at the bank, replacing camera batteries, registering for Sunday’s Bridge Stride, getting my hair seriously shortened – I attempted a nap, then gave up and started preparing for the concert. Out the door about 7:20, I drove to downtown and found parking about three blocks from the Crystal Ballroom. The line to enter wrapped three-quarters of the way around the block, and the crowd was convivial. And right after 8 p.m., the line started to move.
The Crystal Ballroom is a restored vintage dance hall, with its main stage in one corner, so the performers’ shadows can play on the walls, and a wood dance floor that more than gives, it bounces. It’s called a “floating dance floor”; I’d love to hear how the designers made that work without warping or breaking the wood. The space is enormous (the fire marshal sign says “1,500 person maximum”), with a balcony off to one side and various food and drink stations scattered along two walls. We filled up the place until it was half packed tightly near the stage, with scattered people in the back half, and then soon after 9 p.m. the music started. The opening act was The Thermals. I bounced to the music until I started to feel that the Thermals were playing very similar songs one after the other, so, sorry, not my best introduction to a band. (Feel free, any Thermals fans, to say how the band works for you.) Still, is there anything hotter than a woman on guitar? She was left-handed, too. Yes, I notice my fellow southpaws.
I had a hunch there’d be another special guest, but no idea who or what. But after the Thermals had cleared their equipment and the stage was prepared for the next performer, a shaggy-haired man entered to huge applause and cheers, while a guy near me said, “Is that Eddie Vedder?” Yes, as it turns out, Eddie Vedder’s not only the lead signer of one of the biggest bands to hit big in the 1990s to still be hitting big, he’s friends with the members of Sleater-Kinney. S-K’s opened for Pearl Jam before, including a mere month ago at a benefit concert here in Portland. This was totally unexpected and a pleasure. He played two songs, one a political protest song, then a gentler song on ukulele with S-K drummer Janet Weiss duetting with him. And oh, she was grinning.
And then finally the three members of Sleater-Kinney – Weiss, Corin Tucker, and Carrie Brownstein – began their show. And exploded: yes, with the help of amps, three people can make that much noise. There’s a lot of punk influence to their music; Tucker’s vocals often are real caterwauls, and Brownstein makes the guitar solos happen and makes them crunchy (I’m not sure how else to describe them!), and Weiss is a drummer to inspire awe. I’m increasingly inarticulate trying to explain why S-K’s music hits me the way it does, but then, one of the top rock critics around is Greil Marcus and he’s talked about what makes S-K so great.
Let me just say that I danced and flailed and pogo-danced and, very often, grinned, especially when all three members sang the “whuh, uh, ohs” on their song “Entertain.” And as the show reached its climax (two encores and all), I saw more grinning from the stage. The thank-yous were plentiful; the hugs were tight; the emotion was peaking, even after nearly three hours of Sleater-Kinney onstage. They gave it their all; they wanted to end on a high note, and oh wow, they did.
Thank you, Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss (who reminds me more and more of my sister-in-law, in good ways) and Carrie Brownstein, for doing what you do and ending on a high note, not ending with death or drug-rehab or just playing themselves out into irrelevancey and oblivion.
Oh, by the way: I wrote this while listening to a radio program repeated from May 2005, when 94.7 KNRK-FM’s Greg Glover interviewed Weiss about her band’s work and played several S-K songs. And I was grinning often then, too.