When the women of Sleater-Kinney called their ninth album The Center Won’t Hold, they were referencing a line in William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming about a world in disarray. (“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”) They weren’t anticipating that the band was about to lose one of its central figures.
But that’s what happened. In July, after the album was finished and the tour that brought the band to the Fillmore Philadelphia on Sunday had already been scheduled, drummer Janet Weiss announced she was leaving. “The band is headed in a new direction," she said, "and it’s time for me to move on.”
It made for an awkward album roll-out, to say the least. Center’s cover is a collage of the three women’s faces. But the group is now a duo, consisting of singer-guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker.
Weiss was not just any drummer. She’s a powerhouse who provided the muscle vital to the most electrifying band to emerge from the Pacific Northwest riot-grrl scene in the early 1990s.
Center’s reception, when it came out in August, was colored by Weiss’ departure. The album — produced by Annie Clark, the singer and guitarist known as St. Vincent — streamlines the band’s raw, untamed sound. But while the St. Vincent collaboration generated buzz, it turned out to be not a great fit. The producer’s specialty is carefully controlled fury. Sleater-Kinney is all about reckless abandon. Fans wondered: If Janet doesn’t like it, should I?
So curiosity was high at the Fillmore as Sleater-Kinney came to town in an expanded configuration. Brownstein and Tucker were alone out front, with three musicians behind them. Katie Harkin, who also toured with the band in 2015, played guitar and keyboards, as did Toko Yasuda. Angie Boylan, who also plays in indie bands Aye Nako and Freezing Cold, is the new drummer.
The larger lineup had a layered sound that took the pressure off Boylan to fill Weiss’ shoes. Center songs such as the sludgy “Ruins” were driven forward by low grinding keyboards. Harkin’s bass beefed up the sound. And Boylan, whose kit was augmented by electronic drum pads, is a powerful player. Brownstein and Tucker found a more than adequate replacement on short notice.
Sunday’s show faced challenges beyond integrating new personnel. Center is a hit-and-miss album, the first inconsistent one since S-K’s 1995 self-titled debut. (The band is named after a road in Olympia, Wash., where one of their first practice spaces was located.)
Brownstein and Tucker played all 11 Center songs in their fast-paced, 1-hour-45 minute, 28-song set, standing behind the new material as well as reaching back for oldies but goodies like “Good Things” from 1996’s Call the Doctor.
In some cases, like the disjointed “The Dog/The Body,” the Center songs’ fundamental flaws couldn’t be overcome. But lots of new material came to life onstage.
“Restless” moved the band in a melodic pop direction. “Broken” was a heart-wrenching ballad that kicked off a six-song encore, with Brownstein at the piano and Tucker singing tenderly. Tucker also put her guitar down for “Animal,” a ripping exploration of rage and revenge released this month.
On the new songs, the two women’s trademark — voices and guitars overlapping on verses before Tucker took over with her fire-alarm voice on the chorus — was used sparingly.
But the dynamic between the two band leaders was as simpatico and thrilling as ever. Brownstein did the talking. That meant urging people to vote President Trump out of office and telling a story about a run-in with a bad batch of kombucha at the pre-show meal at a Philadelphia restaurant that they hoped wouldn’t make anyone ill on stage. They declined to name the eatery.
Brownstein, who co-starred in the comedy series Portlandia, is a live-wire performer who’s a delight to watch. A formidable guitarist, she also has an arsenal of kicks, jumps, and hair wags that takes the visuals of rock performance dominated by generations of dudes, and makes them her own.
Brownstein and Tucker — the latter also a member of the band Filthy Friends — have both had busy careers outside of the history of the band. But the tight connection that remains between the two was apparent whenever Brownstein pogo-ed up to her band mate during an instrumental break and smiles lit their faces. The center won’t hold, but the show will go on.