1 Apr 2012: Webster Hall New York
If two racehorses named “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “When the Whip Comes Down” competed, neck and neck, for seven brow-mopping minutes, that would be the emotional equivalent of hearing a live Mary Timony/Carrie Brownstein guitar face-off.
“Racehorse” brought rock and roll fun back to New York City. Long, layered, and emblematic of Wild Flag’s fervid sound, the interwoven guitar melodies oozed British Invasion-tinged bravado.
“Pony up, pony up,” Brownstein puffed, smacking her vowels and consonants around like linguistic tetherball. Her mouth made a perfect 90-degree rectangle. She bellowed: “We’re in the monaaay,” affecting an authoritative drawl—not unlike Joe Strummer.
Wild Flag isn’t just money—it’s a royal flush. Composed of Helium’s vocalist Mary Timony, Sleater-Kinney’s guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, and the Minders’ keyboardist Rebecca Cole, these bona fide riot-jockeys have done nothing but sell out shows and dominate ‘best-of’ lists. It’s hardly been a year.
It’s also hardly a secret that Wild Flag is one of the best rock bands around. Doubtful? Check out the ever-sleek Janet Weiss kicking out the jams on “Electric Band”. The accompanying music video places her on the mound for a reason.
“Electric Band” is a proof of musical existence that descends from the Bad Company “I rock, therefore, I am” school of thought. In the 1970s, all great minds and mustaches concurred—whether you were dancing in the streets of Hyannis, Rockaway Beach or Garageland—the subject of music was primarily getting crazy and anticipating music.
Wild Flag affirms this credo through its post-punk filter; rising above camp with technique.
“All we are is dust and air,” Timony sings, steadily and unadorned—an admission that definitely would not have flown among bands carving hairy origin stories in the past-tense pantheon of rock (and record deals). Wild Flag swaps creation for invitation: “Come on and join our electric band.”
With a modern sound and lyrics penned in the future tense, Wild Flag invoke yet another mainstream ‘70s tenet: Don’t Look Back.
Appropriately, the set flew by, as if on a conveyor belt built of riffs. The fast guitars of “Short Version”, complimented Brownstein’s wayward vocals (Patti Smith karaoke, anyone?) that looped straight into the intricate “Black Tiles”. “For all we know we’re just here for the length, length of a song,” Brownstein conjectured mightily over Timony’s facile arpeggios.
On the erratic noise jam (aptly titled) “Boom”, Brownstein counts to eight and it sounds like she’s playing hide-and-seek at the mental ward. Luckily, Nurse Cole’s forceful synths hold her back, as she threatens: “We’ve got nothing to lose!”
Watching these four musicians onstage makes one realize how rare it is when a band performs—and sounds—like a team. The contrasting pitches, the duck-and-weave chord inversions, the way Timony inflects the last syllables of her words, and Brownstein’s contralto answers them: these are the best parts of Wild Flag, and it all sounds even better live.
The sum of Wild Flag is in the strength of its parts. As a certain bookstore patron once said: “You wouldn’t go into a puzzle store and buy one puzzle piece*.” (Brownstein’s Portlandia co-star, Fred Armisen, watched from the balcony.)
This craftwork translates beautifully on “Something Came Over Me”, the most reticent summer song, ever: “summer’s creeping up slowly… let the good times toll”. Timony sings this death knell in, ironically, in her higher register, while Brownstein’s guitar lays in the lower tones, rising and collapsing on the rhythm. The two are like positive charges that circle around each other, but never meet.
Ambiguity continued as Cole ushered in the surreal melodies of “Glass Tambourine” (by playing tambourine) with its flower power message about music as salvation and interstellar vibrations. The space age-y prog rock jam laid into the minor keys of the punk departure “Future Crimes”.
Wild Flag played two unreleased tracks: the dizzying “Winter Pair” and dreamy “Nothing”. On these songs, Brownstein high kicked into the hearts of pretty much anything with a pulse. People were literally squealing. At one point, she hopped on top of Weiss’s bass drum (wearing heels) and just stood there with her back emphatically turned against the crowd. Golden. God.
The encores consisted of three covers: Timony’s quixotic take on “Beast of Burden”, Bobby Freeman’s eternal crowd-pleaser, “Do You Wanna Dance”, and best of all, a surprising and intense rendition of Fugazi’s “Margin Walker”.
“I don’t know if you’ll know this one… you might.” Brownstein warned, putting her guitar down for the first time all night. The crowd surged forward and she lunged to meet them: staggering, screaming, and perpendicular to the mic stand.
Of course, “Romance,” was the token song of the night. It’s a love story to the same people who know that “Let’s Spend the Night Together” isn’t about a person.
Rife with bombastic drums, tumbling California punk guitars, even a cute clap interlude: “Romance” is a creation myth with bandwidth.
40 years ago, “Romance” might have had a straighter story arc. The only hints of location here are “spaces” and “empty places”. Our narrator has “no story”. But today, what is there? Who is where? Sonic rendezvous are private. Password protected.
Wild Flag refreshes the page for us—the new wave of audiophiles, the page view proletariat—searching and scrolling for a sound that wrecks us, resurrects us, and gets under our skin. “Hands down we like, we like what we like / Hands down we like, we love, we choose you,” goes the chant.
We like it, ladies, and we want to put a ring on it.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More