I did a thoroughly wretched job of keeping my expectations low for seeing Wild Flag live, but they still sounded even more amazing than I'd hoped. For "Glass Tambourine," Mary Timony held her guitar aloft, playing it behind her head, while Carrie Brownstein knelt with hers on the floor by the drum riser, both wreaking out crazed solos as Janet Weiss pounded away and Rebecca Cole danced behind her organ. The psychedelic crunch-groove built up over five, six, seven minutes, like Syd Barrett circa "Astronomy Domine" chewing up the Stooges and spitting them out. It was a shameless celebration of rockness.
Ever since Wild Flag got together last fall, people have been feverishly excited to hear them, despite the fact that they have yet to record their first album, much less release it. They're a four-woman punk rock dream team: Brownstein and Weiss were two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, while Timony was the singer and guitarist for Helium. At a time when indie rock needs a major charisma injection (which is approximately 100 percent of the time), Wild Flag have a sense of swagger that we've been missing. These ladies are not shy about busting out all the guitar-hero moves onstage – last night they barely got a minute into the first song before Brownstein started doing her trademark high leg kicks.
Sleater-Kinney and Helium were not just two of the great guitar bands of the Nineties, the best era ever for guitar bands, but they were also unabashed old-school rock worshippers. They loved to indulge in virtuosic solos and epic jams as well as head-slamming punk noise. Brownstein may be the first guitarist since Pete Townshend to master the windmill, while Timony was way ahead of her time in reviving King Crimson-style stoner-prog textures. It took a lot of artistic integrity to sing about "Cosmic Rays" in 1997.
Wild Flag sound less like Sleater-Kinney than the Spells, the short-lived garage-rock band Brownstein and Timony formed in 1999. The Spells just banged out one EP, featuring the world's greatest cover version of the Who's "I Can't Explain." But it's basically the template for this band: primal Nuggets-style riffs, except with all sorts of complex proggy guitar loops bursting out of the structures.
This wasn't a headlining Wild Flag gig – just a brief set at Radio City Music Hall, opening for Superchunk and Bright Eyes. But I was so excited, I couldn't listen to anything all week except vintage Helium records like Pirate Prude and The Dirt of Luck, singing along with Timony's badass sneer in "XXX": "My heart is a cab, your love is a fad, and you're a drag!" (And I just saw the Corin Tucker Band in Seattle a few weeks ago, which means hearing all three members of Sleater-Kinney rock out in the same month for the first time since their legendary farewell shows in 2006.)
They began with Timony wailing the quintessentially classic-rock show-opening chorus, "Here comes the electric band!" (I guess "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends" was taken.) Timony and Brownstein traded off lead vocals and solos, playing insane amounts of guitar all the way through ace tunes like "Slow Version." After the galactic jam on "Glass Tambourine," they brought it all down to earth with the drum strut of "Romance."
Since they started gigging in November, Wild Flag have been playing lots of raucous classic-rock covers, all worth hearing as bootlegs – the Standells' "Dirty Water," Lou Reed's "She's My Best Friend," Patti Smith's "Ask the Angels." They do an especially choice version of the Stones' "Beast of Burden," with Timony and Brownstein handling the "pretty pretty pretty girls" chant. Tonight, though, it was all Wild Flag songs, and it was enough to make you extremely impatient for the album. Their only recorded work so far is the "Glass Tambourine"/"Future Crimes" vinyl single, produced by Spoon's Britt Daniel – but here's an irresponsible prediction that this Wild Flag album is going to rule.
Superchunk were excellent as well, continuing the victory lap for their 2010 return Majesty Shredding. Jesus, talk about staying power. Superchunk opened their set with a single they released in 1989 – the evergreen Replacements doppelganger "Slack Motherfucker" – yet the highlight was "Rosemarie," which they just put out last year. Now that's a rare feat. Part of the fun was how you couldn't tell the new songs from the old songs without a program – "Digging for Something" is from 2010, "The First Part" is from 1994, but they both thrive on the same bristling guitars and emotional determination.
Bright Eyes put on a splashy arena-style show, apparently gunning to become Icicle Works to the Arcade Fire's U2. The dynamics might have been a bit off, with Conor Oberst fighting to get his songs heard over the band, but Oberst was appealing as always, dedicating a song to his old pal Janet Weiss and apologizing for his dirty lyrics: "I don't know who made this set list, but it's gross."
Also, the excellent pre-show playlist of Fifties/Sixties hits had an old country song I never heard before, Don Gibson's "Sea of Heartbreak," a Number 2 country hit in 1961. (It crossed over to the pop charts and hit Number 21.) It sounds just like "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," which makes me wonder if'n Dylan was a fan. Either way, this could be the song that plays soft on the country-music station in "Visions of Johanna," in Louise's loft where the heat pipes cough. I hope Wild Flag cover it. And their album can't come soon enough for me.