Live Report: Helium/Sleater-Kinney

The Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge, Mass., March 28, 1998

Just when it seemed as if rotating headliners Helium and Sleater-Kinney had taken rock and roll about as far as it could go in one night, Helium's Mary Timony had an idea for an encore. "We're gonna do a song with Sleater-Kinney," Timony said from behind her keyboards as she beckoned Olympia, Wash.'s punk darlings back on stage to ecstatic cheers from the sold-out crowd.

With guitars duly strapped on, plugged in and tuned up, the crew plunged headfirst into the crushed-out bliss of "The Revolution of Hearts Parts I and II," a swirling, ethereal epic from Helium's magnificent '97 LP The Magic City. The song, stretched well beyond its eight-minute studio version, amply demonstrated what Timony's art-damaged outfit has been up to since the release three years ago of their debut, The Dirt of Luck.

Although no one would ever accuse Helium of becoming subdued, they have (for the moment at least) smoothed the splintered Sonic Youth-via-Pavement rhythms of their earlier work, embracing instead the elegant menace of underground rock godparents the Velvet Underground. With Timony trading vocals with Sleater-Kinney lead singer Corin Tucker and S-K guitarist Carrie Brownstein pinwheeling her strumming arm like Pete Townshend's upstart kid sister, the moment ultimately proved to be the evening's highlight.

Elsewhere during Helium's enthralling, enigmatic sixty-minute set, Timony didn't let her hometown audience down, distilling jagged slices of glittery guitar on numbers like "Ocean of Wine" and "Devil's Tear." Again and again, Helium carefully constructed distortion-saturated pop melodies, tastefully toeing the line between coherence and indie-cred dissonance.

Minutes before, Sleater-Kinney had offered a compelling reminder of how simple, direct and effective rock and roll (or punk, or whatever else you want to call it this year) can be. Though a little of Tucker's fluttery yet piercing warble went a long way, the band's urgent, minimalist (no bass) assault made for a fiercely honest statement that seemed to instantly erase the boundaries between artist and audience. In Sleater-Kinney's hands, raw, startling blasts of expression like "Heart Factory" and "One More Hour" became more than just songs. They became imperatives. A revolution of the heart indeed.