Live Review: Wild Flag at Spaceland
For a woman who once recorded for a label called Kill Rock Stars, Carrie Brownstein has made her peace with — and claimed her place in — guitar-hero history. Friday night at the Los Angeles debut of her new band, Wild Flag, the former Sleater-Kinney ax woman did Pete Townshend windmills, strummed Keith Richards riffs, got Iggy Pop wild and ended in a Patti Smith trance.
Which is not to say that the skinny tomboy behind the bangs is not definitively her own person. It’s just that the erstwhile music blogger for National Public Radio has tossed the mumbley coyness of indie rock aside for a charged blast of “Nuggets”-style psychedelic power pop — a.k.a. punk. She roared at Spaceland: “I’m a racehorse, you put your money on me.” The song might have been called “Racehorse” or “We’re in the Money” — Portland, Ore.-based Wild Flag has released little information about its music, and the band’s onstage set list was a cipher of names of chords.
In these days of viral hype, this new fab four — including ex-Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, guitarist-singer Mary Timony (Helium) and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (the Minders) — wants the music to speak for itself. Wild Flag announced its formation less than two months ago. The band has yet to record an album and has released no songs on MySpace or videos on YouTube (though camera-armed fans have posted live shots). This was Wild Flag’s sixth show ever. “We’re trying out this thing of being in a band,” Brownstein said between songs.
Thanks to the members’ pedigree, the Spaceland gig was sold out; fans begged for tickets. The band’s first show, Nov. 10 in Olympia, Wash., was covered by Spin.com. Expectations/hopes are high that in this era when women seem to have to announce their sex to be stars, a band that just plays really well can thrive. Friday’s show exceeded those expectations.
Wild Flag is not necessarily an easy mesh of talents. Timony is an accomplished player, but her style’s much more subdued and artistic than that of the S-K duo. She had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look at times, because she sang sometimes too softly about a “glass tambourine” and time travel. She and Brownstein traded lead vocals and guitars. When they laced the sounds of their Fender and Gibson together in feedback-drenched workouts, they gave Sonic Youth a run for its money. With Cole adding ’60s-style Farfisa organ, the sound was reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, with Timony as the gifted, fragile Syd Barrett.
Weiss, who has also drummed with Quasi, Stephen Malkmus and the Go-Betweens, is a powerhouse, no-frills player. Instrumentally, the band is rock solid — several of its songs have choruses with no words. The big question about Wild Flag was what would it do vocally. All four members sing, but none with the range, power and tone of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker (Tucker has her own band now). There were painful pitch moments Friday; at first, I thought Brownstein was going to massacre the encore of Smith’s “Ask the Angels.”
But then, as she did throughout the evening, Brownstein pulled a tiger from her gut. For four years, the renaissance woman largely traded making music for writing and acting (she has a book contract as well as a sketch-comedy show debuting on the Independent Film Channel). It was as if she’d been building up this head of steam that exploded on the Spaceland stage. During the racehorse song, she battered her guitar against her microphone, albeit somewhat gingerly — but not gingerly enough. Tip for would-be Whos: Wait until your last song to smash your instruments. There was an awkward pause as Brownstein fumbled to get her gear working. “They’re good players, but they’re not mechanics,” Weiss cracked.
Wild Flag is an ensemble, but Brownstein is the driving force. In what seemed to be a nod to the current landscape for women in music, she joked that various songs were covers of Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera. Actually, Wild Flag covered the Rolling Stones (“Beast of Burden”), the Standells (“Dirty Water”) and, in a tribute to her National Book Award, Smith. Brownstein whipped the refrain of “Wild!” in “Ask the Angels,” a nod to her band’s name.
As much as Sleater-Kinney is sorely missed, we now have two great bands to follow.
-- Evelyn McDonnell
Top photo: Carrie Brownstein. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Mary Timony: Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times