For unclear reasons I ended up writing 1800 words about the legacy of the Olympia scene as represented by Sleater-Kinney and Mirah, twenty years after the pivotal year of 1999, in the form of two concert reviews from shows I saw shortly before the pandemic in late autumn 2019.

1999 Olympia - Twenty years later

My concertgoing schedule of April 2022 was a bit extreme, with four shows in the span of about two weeks. That’s a lot for me now, but when I was younger it was pretty routine. In my pre-family days in the late 1990s, I would routinely see several shows each week, including at current haunts like the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club as well as now-closed venues like the Iota and the Velvet Lounge.

I was recently thinking back to the pre-pandemic days of late 2019. It was a weird period in my own life with a then-new consulting gig and no clear professional path forward. But I was very busy and saw a lot of shows in what turned out to be the last big stretch before the pandemic hit. Two of the shows offered a strange opportunity to compare and contrast the legacy of Olympia, Washington, and the scene that spawned the riot grrl movement and other critical musical trends in the late 1990s, twenty years beforehand, when my concertgoing was at its peak in Washington DC. (And yeah, there were a lot of thematic and artistic connections at that stage between the two Washingtons, in the largely pre-Internet era when bands traded music on cassette and connected with their fans through postcards and fanzines.)

Within a span of a few weeks in late fall 2019, I saw two much-beloved music musical acts whose roots extend to that date, and saw how their career trajectories and artistic directions diverged over the subsequent twenty years. On the evening of October 25, 2019, a night that I remember very distinctly, I was working at the major annual conference of the organization which has been my employer for the subsequent 2 1/2 years. I had won tickets in the online drawing to see Sleater-Kinney, a band that meant a great deal to me over the past 20 years, but one whose direction at that point was diverging sharply from my interests. This was at the Anthem, a venue at which of now developed quite a bit of experience. Despite that, I’ve never spent a penny on tickets at the Anthem, which has become a source of pride. Or maybe just stubbornness. Mostly, the bands that I see at the Anthem are acts that I would’ve once seen, for $20 less, at the 9:30 Club. Many of them have since graduated out of the 9:30 Club, but maintain the same overall audience.

By 1999, 20 years before, Sleater-Kinney were on their fourth record, and they were well en route to being regarded as America’s best rock band. I would see the band a bunch of times when I lived in Portland, especially in their “homecoming” gigs at the Crystal Ballroom, after they relocated from Olympia down the I-5 corridor. But they went on a lengthy hiatus before their reunion in the mid-2010s. Seeing Sleater-Kinney in their reunion shows in 2015 for the No Cities to Love tour at the 9:30 Club was a revelation. The songs were crisp and memorable, the audience was motivated and engaged and thrilled to see them after a long hiatus, and the performances had all the ragged energy and verve that Sleater-Kinney fans love. By comparison, the October 2019 show that I saw at the Anthem was a depressing, clinical experience. In the stage the size of the Anthem, the band took on a hyperglossy veneer, one which I’m tempted to blame on Annie Clark of Saint Vincent, who had produced their then-new record, The Center Won’t Hold. Janet Weiss, the longtime drummer, had announced her unexpected departure presumably in response to the band’s artistic directions, and left the band a few weeks before. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker strode the stage like arena rock goddesses of old, but with a weird sheen to the overall performance. I didn’t love the music that had been released in advance of the 2019 tour, but when I go back and listen to individual songs I can see elements that call to mind the Sleater-Kinney of old, the combination of sneer, craft, idealism, and righteous rage. But the overall take away from albums like The Center Won’t Hold, Path of Wellness and others in this post-reunion phase is a depressing one. A lot of the songs seem like an unpleasant combination of new wave, mechanical synth, and girl group chanting, moving away from the raucous energy of early Sleater-Kinney albums like Dig Me Out or the anguished political and personal commentary from midperiod highlights like the post-9/11 One Beat.

I had walked to the Anthem that October 2019 evening carrying my work laptop and backpack, and as I picked it up from the Anthem coat check, leaving the show unnecessarily early, I felt as sense of resignation and diminished expectations about the legacy of the 1990s Olympia scene. I had a very different sensibility when my wife and I drove to an elegant home in upper Northwest Washington a few weeks later, to see a solo show by the one time Olympia-based songwriter Mirah Yom Tom Zeitlyn. I’ve loved Mirah for many years, since her record in 2000, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This. I’ve written a great many words about her recorded output, including what is probably the longest single career overview of her work on Trouser Press. There are a lot of Mirah records I love, but that early record and the way that it combined sexiness, naïve energy, folk humility, and punk sincerity, is still a standout that I’m proud to listen to regularly.

Like the members of Sleater-Kinney, Mirah was circulating around the Olympia scene of the latter 1990s. In a coincidence of which I was unaware until just now, Mirah and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney were born just exactly ten days apart, both in September 1974. Both Jewish, both leftist, both identified as queer in one way or another, they were all circulating around the Evergreen State scene in Olympia in the late 1990s. Mirah signed with K Records in 1999, somewhat older than many of her riot grrl peers, coming from a background in folk music and a hippie sensibility that was somewhat at odds with some more raucous punk work of Bikini Kill and their related bands. But Mirah’s close affiliation with Microphones, Beat Happening, K Records, and the assorted independent music stalwarts show that she was truly a core figure in that closely knit scene.

I’ve seen Mirah in many settings over the past twenty years, as a solo act, with a backing band, from clubs to festivals, you name it. Like Sleater-Kinney, she had once been based in Portland, so she was almost a neighbor for some time and I saw her at odd shows like VFW Halls (alongside The Blow and COCO! Early '00s Portland was a trip.). Seeing her in the living room of a comfortable upper middle-class home was something of a change in vibe, but it was commensurate with where she was in her life and her music. With a new baby, the middle 40s Mirah was easing back into live performance with a gentle on-ramp, staying at the homes of fans who could babysit her new daughter, while she played quietly on an acoustic guitar in front of a small but devoted fan base.

In front of probably 30 or 40 people who driven to the home, Mirah did a selection of songs from throughout her career, including a strong emphasis on her more recent work. She and her sister had a tribute song to Leonard Cohen called “LC” which played on some classic Cohen imagery and lyrical sentiments, but she also looked back at early material from You Think It’s Like This and Advisory Committee. Much of Mirah’s later records have taken her pastoral imagery to an explicitly ecological place, with pieces like “Sundial” (from the perspective of seeds and plants) and a suite of songs that allude to her own agrarian past — and future, as it turned out, as she would thereafter leave Brooklyn with her partner and daughter to move back to an organic farm in Vermont in the pandemic.

What I’ve always found most charming about Mirah’s songs are the way that she connects the desire to maintain personal connection — soulful, spiritual, physical — with the connections that hold together the natural world. The intimacy of her live performance shouldn’t be confused with a a folkish timidity; she tackles big subjects with her eyes wide open, and a vocal performance to match. Early records (and her association with Phil Elvrum of Microphones and the K Records scene) might have seemed lo-fi or charmingly amateurish, but Mirah has a strong grasp of classic songwriting tools and a voice honed over the years to embrace the subtlety and nuance of a skilled jazz singer, whether her songs are nominally folk, or punk, or ‘indie,’ or even draw in the timbres and tones of Argentine tango or cabaret. There is a charming warmth in Mirah’s singing voice in her 40s that wasn’t there in the simpler recordings that she made in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

So, 20 years after the momentous 1999, reconnecting with Sleater-Kinney and Mirah, far from Olympia, brought out mixed reactions. I don’t disparage Sleater-Kinney, a band that ultimately become a world-conquering monster, for its ambition and its ultimate belated commercial reach. I don’t even begrudge the role of Annie Clark of St. Vincent, whom I’ve always found stunningly talented but annoying more than inspiring. Indeed, the band was a far more compelling commercial force by the late 2010s than it was during its 1999 artistic heyday. In advance of the 2015 reunion tour, I wrote a snide little Think Piece About the Think Pieces Thinking About Sleater-Kinney. As I wrote at the time, “The think pieces all dwell on the importance of Sleater-Kinney, their cultural and political relevance, and what it means for them to retake the stage in 2015. What I feel is missing in all this discussion is the recognition that Sleater-Kinney was (is) a fun band. Their concerts were consciousness-raising events, but they were also hilarious and entertaining.” Unfortunately, I think latter-day Sleater-Kinney started taking itself seriously, just as the serious rock critics took Sleater-Kinney seriously as a big rock band, and between the artistic directions and the odd direction toward Sleater-Kinney as “Dad rock” (touring with Wilco?), I doubt I’ll feel the need to see them again. That can’t be said for Mirah. By keeping her commercial ambitions modest, but staying true to the whimsies of her artistic muse and remaining connected to her fans, she’s eked out a quietly substantial career. I don’t think that smallness in scale works for everyone, but it’s worked out for Mirah as she has managed her artistic work, her family, and her ideals. And in their only way, the members of Sleater-Kinney navigated many of the same questions and ended up in very different places.

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 03/27/2024 04:46PM by zwirnm.
Reply Quote
Re: 1999 Olympia - Twenty years later (Sleater-Kinney and Mirah, October/November 2019)
May 13, 2022 11:27AM
That's exactly how I felt about Sleater-Kinney. I followed their albums for years, and did my best to get tickets to see them perform. But they always sold out so fast. When they returned in 2015, with their superb comeback No Cities to Love, they played four nights at the Showbox in Seattle ... and I still couldn't get a ticket.

I finally managed to get tickets to their 2019 show at the Paramount. But then they came out with that St. Vincent-produced mess The Center Cannot Hold -- an incredibly disheartening release from a band with one of the longest home-run streaks in rock. And then, as if to prove that the album couldn't have been more aptly titled, Janet Weiss opted to pack up her drum kit and leave. After those two crushing events, I gave my tickets to someone else.
If you never saw Sleater-Kinney in their early- or mid-period heydays, you did miss out. But I'm sure you had a lot of chances to see them in Seattle, right? I didn't arrive in the Pacific Northwest until 2001, so I missed their early records, but I saw them twice in Portland in the early '00s, probably 2002 and 2003? It was fun. Super high energy, raucous, taut, but also empowering and cathartic. And then not until the reunion tour in 2015, which was also really powerful, especially when considering the generations of younger musicians and fans who had admired for so long and then could finally see them on tour (again, or for the first time). And then the really dismaying 2019 show. I still cherish Sleater-Kinney's output and have all the records, but I won't anticipate seeing them again.
Re: 1999 Olympia - Twenty years later (Sleater-Kinney and Mirah, October/November 2019)
May 14, 2022 03:56AM
At the time I moved to Seattle from Colorado, Sleater-Kinney was on hiatus. They came back from that hiatus after our move, but I simply couldn't get a ticket to see them, unless I was willing to sacrifice groceries for a month for scalper's prices.
I was lucky enough to see them in Paris on their 2015 tour and it was a great show (the band released it as an official live record a couple of years later). My review of that show on this forum is here (,51887,51943#msg-51943). Janet Weiss's powerful drumming was a big part of why that show was great, so I was really disappointed by The center Won't Hold. Their latest album, Path of Wellness, is a whole lot better, but I still feel I caught them at their peak power, and any future show would be a disappointment.

I did have a spare ticket for that Paris show. I bought two when they came out, certain that one of my usual concert buddies would be interested, but none were available, and I ended up selling to a scalper near the front door, at a slight loss. I'm sure he had no dificulty finding a taker, because the venue was absolutely packed.
Re: 1999 Olympia - Twenty years later (Sleater-Kinney and Mirah, October/November 2019)
May 15, 2022 09:13AM
I would like to issue an open invitation to have substantial, high-quality posts like this appear, rather than in the forum, on the main page of the site as articles. Anyone who is bubbling up something this thoughtful and entertaining and would like a bit more public exposure, please let me know and I will read and most likely publish it. It would be fine if it began in the forum and got upped to the front page, or came in direct. Whatever works. Thanks for all your great contributions over the years.
Reply Quote
Would love to. I will drop you a line.
Keith Harris in Minneapolis wrote a long, earnest, sad piece about the experience of going to a Sleater-Kinney concert in 2024, after years of fandom. It also hits on a lot of the same points I had made in my essay awhile back for my 2019 experience:

Sorry, only registered users may post in this forum.

Click here to login