It’s been nearly two years since Sleater-Kinney released “One Beat” (Kill Rock Stars), and based on the first show of their two-night run at the El Rey Theater, they’ve used that time well. The 75-minute set found the Washington state trio doing something impressive and all too rarely seen: expanding and refining their sound while never losing sight of what made them worth hearing in the first place — punky energy, impassioned songcraft and the intense weaving of Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s guitars with Janet Weiss’ brawny, musical work on drums.
Where past Sleater-Kinney shows have moved like a sprinter, the band speeding through the songs like as if it were competing in the 50-yard dash, just about every song at the El Rey included a moment of reflection. Taking a pause from their tangled, intricate riffing, Tucker and Brownstein engaged in moments of ecstatic feedback, slowed-down and sustained chords or even, in the case of new song “Bomp,” extended improvisation (one hesitates to call it jamming).
The band also engaged a richer palette of influences — touches of the B-52s (always evident in the chanted vocals and pithy guitar lines), the Stones and Sonic Youth can be heard, even in older material such as “All Hands on the Bad One,” which receives a slinky, swaggering rendition.
But even at their headiest, Sleater-Kinney makes every song sound like a call to arms. Weiss — whose drums are even more of a lead instrument with the bassless Sleater-Kinney than they would be in a more conventional power trio — adds a martial tattoo to her always impressive drumming, and the guitarists engage themselves like warriors while Tucker’s heavily vibratoed wail cuts through the music like a klaxon.
The aud greeted the unfamiliar and reworked material enthusiastically (some too enthusiastically, as the band had to stop the show at one point to stop some aggressive dancers in the front). As if to prove they haven’t forsaken its roots, the band returned to the authoritative punk of “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun” in its encore.
Weiss performed double duty, also playing with Quasi. The waters roil as much for this drum-and-piano duo as they do for the headliners, but Sam Coomes’ delicate, Elliott Smith-style melodies occasionally surface among Sun Ra free-jazz freakouts.