Wild Flag’s concert was great. Let me tell you about it. But first: an old-fashioned tangent.
Context – it matters. Or at least it should. Music criticism is often pushed into a vacuum of sorts, where bloggers/reviewers use one-sheets and Wikipedia entries to feign a deeper knowledge in back catalogs, or, on the flip side, pretend to be able to be entirely objective about bands with which they’ve forged incredibly deep and personal relationships. When someone writes a scathing review of the new Metallica and Lou Reed album – as I did (as everyone did) – it seems… relevant whether the reviewer has always hated Metallica and metal… or whether Master of Puppets or Metal Machine Music is their favorite album… or if they somehow just emerged from a cocoon and had no opinion about either of those artists before sitting down to absorb their new piece of art. In my case: they were an extremely important band in my formative years and I came to defend them through haircuts, through Napster, through rehab, not quite through St. Anger but then again through Death Magnetic. Writing vicious adjectives about Mr. Hetfield & Co. was not the gleeful punching bag exercise that I imagine it was for some other Lulu reviewers. That seems somehow pertinent for readers processing my processing. Alas, this paragraph was longer than my review. So it often goes.
Here’s the thing: I fucking love Sleater-Kinney. Not in the way that I “love” some other canonical bands that secretly don’t find their way to my speakers very often. I’ve listened to S-K a ton over the years and they are inextricably linked to the narrative of my 20s – soundtracking a laundry list of heavy and heady life shit like adulthood and falling in love and moving to LA and 9/11 and on and on. I named One Beat the best album of the ‘00s. I stand by it.
Since their hiatus, Corin Tucker has gone solo while singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss have teamed up with indie-rock veteran Mary Timony (Helium) and Rebecca Cole to make Wild Flag. Realistically, either venture could probably be objectively better than Sleater-Kinney and I would still like it less than Sleater-Kinney, for reasons touched on above. I’d wager a few other people in the energetic, sold-out audience felt similarly (sidenote: the previous night had sold out as well). That did not, however, dampen the level of love directed toward the stage from the get-go.
Although they are technically a new band touring on a debut record (released earlier this year on Merge), there aren’t many kinks left to be worked out; they started road-testing this first batch of material even before they hit the studio, so they’ve had time to perfect them. Each band member plays an indispensable role; Cole and Weiss providing immaculate, ‘60s-styled harmonies, Weiss teaching her usual master class on the drums, Timony and Brownstein trading punchy riffs and vocals. It’s a treat to see such a talented collective on a (relatively) small stage; the last time I saw Brownstein doing her high kicks and Pete Townshend windmills, she was standing on the main stage at Coachella.
The Brownstein-led songs tend to be the harder and more energetic tracks – “Future Crimes” and “Romance” being two notable highlights on both record and stage. She’s a commanding, charismatic star who isn’t afraid to take a few steps back and share the spotlight. Timony is a bit more mellow and inscrutable, though hardly aloof; like the rest of her bandmates, she could frequently be seen smiling, whether between songs or during a traded riff. She particularly nailed “Something Came Over Me,” one of the night’s clearest highlights.
The debut isn’t long enough to stretch across an entire concert – just 10 songs, 40 minutes – so that gives Wild Flag three choices: jam, cover or write new songs. They’ve chosen all the above. The extended jam sessions on “Glass Tambourine” and “Racehorse” stretched on a bit long, particularly the latter, which felt like it lasted for about an hour on its own, and just after the show had really hit its summit – although, with that said, it featured a few fantastic crescendos. Of the two promising new songs, “Winter Pair” was the bigger attention-grabber, a screeching punk thrasher. For their covers, they nodded lovingly at some of their influences: Television, the Ramones, the Stones. Enhancing the partytime vibe, Eleanor Friedberger bopped out to trade “Beast of Burden” lines with Timony and, more rousingly, to lead the Flag through a gleeful (NOT Glee-ful) rendition of “Do You Wanna Dance?”
This was a night of rock done right – with plenty of promise for this new band’s future. In stray moments, in the psychedelic doldrums of “Racehorse,” did I catch myself longing for the familiar comforts and thrills of Dig Me Out or The Woods? Sure, here and there. Sometimes pretty powerfully. But less than you might expect. And that, as the earlier spiel hopefully made clear, is no small triumph on the part of Wild Flag.