Transcendence: The Bangles and Sleater-Kinney

You can measure how irresistible the Bangles are by the number of days (now two and counting since I saw them play live) that they’ve had me humming a song I had been pretty sure I hated.

Their show at Irving Plaza in New York on Saturday night really got cooking about half an hour in, with a lovely rendition of Big Star’s September Gurls. No matter what you think of the Bangles, you can’t deny the fact that they are the greatest cover band ever, and it’s not particularly close.

Next they played several tunes, at once primal and shiny, from Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles!, a just-released, and excellent, compilation of early recordings. “From when we were baby Bangles,” said one of the ladies, and my inability to remember which one was speaking only testifies to the band’s egalitarianism — everybody sings, everybody harmonizes, everybody talks. Then came Hazy Shade of Winter, a Simon and Garfunkel song once upon a time, but the Bangles took possession of it long ago, with blistering guitar lines and harmonies well beyond the original (!), and they’re not giving it back. Another highlight, kicking off the encore, was How is the Air Up There, which mixed garage rock with punk with a jangling and joyous charm that is entirely the Bangles’ own. When you hear the band on record, they sometimes suffer from 80’s-style overproduction, but all the songs they played at Irving Plaza were reduced to their essence, and the band got all them across. I am not a fan of recording shows on video, but I couldn’t help filming a bit of this one, just to have a keepsake.

The band closed the show, inevitably I suppose, with Eternal Flame, their biggest hit and the Freebird of their universe, more or less. I assumed this would be a letdown, especially after the vitality of the main set: despite Susanna Hoffs’s committed vocal, Eternal Flame always struck me as overproduced mush, pure pop cheese. But there’s a reason people yell and flick their lighters and refuse to go home till they hear Freebird: everybody likes a sing-along. After an hour and a half of speeding down Bangle freeway together, it was time for band and audience to meld into a single whole, and the ladies were smart and confident enough to make that happen by slowing down the pace and ending with a group hug of a ballad. So drummer Debbi Peterson came out from behind her kit and joined her bandmates on guitar, polka dots of light swirled through the audience, the cheesy lyrics became a call to harmony inside the club (Close your eyes! Give me your hand!), and there was no way you could keep yourself from singing along. It was corny, genuinely warm, and fully earned, a glorious way to send a thousand people jammed tightly in a small space out into the New York night. Maybe the song is treacle, but now I can’t stop humming it.

I was still feeling the thrill of the Bangles show two days later when I remembered how another band had recently made me feel almost exactly the same way. It was Sleater-Kinney, the Bangles’ spiritual successors in more ways than one, who came back last year after an almost ten year hiatus, playing just as fiercely as ever. When I went to see them, they too had ripped through an hour and a half of take-no-prisoners rock and roll… and then slowed things down and ended the show with their ironic ballad, Modern Girl. Only they played it as a sing-along, audience and band joined into one just like they would at the Bangles’ show, and the song completely transcended its irony. When we all sang the chorus together — My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day! — everyone knew the line as written was a deeply cutting takedown of consumer culture, but at the same time, in that room, there was no way you could help feeling it really was a sunny day, with this band back in your life. The moment was lovely, warm, musical, joyous, and more than a little Bangle-esque.