Show Review: Wild Flag with Grass Widow and Royal Baths at Bottom of the Hill, 11/18/2010

by Jason LeRoy on November 19, 2010

Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag. All photos by Christopher Rogers.

WOW.

Wild Flag, the much-buzzed new supergroup featuring Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, Janet Weiss of S-K and Quasi, and Rebecca Cole of The Minders, made their Bay Area debut last night. And what a debut it was.

Jeremy Cox and Eden Birch of Royal Baths

Local band Royal Baths kicked off the evening with their crowd-pleasing brand of deafening psych-drone. Despite the fact that everyone had to yell about 20 times louder to be heard by their friends or bartenders during this set, it was nonetheless hypnotic and captivating. Plus, the lead singer reminds me of Nathan Bexton from Go and Nowhere. So that’s a plus.

Raven Mahon and Lillian Maring of Grass Widow

Local favorites Grass Widow followed. Wowzers, where has this band been all my life? The Kill Rock Stars act was the perfect lead-in for Wild Flag, and if the headlining act had been anything less spectacular, Grass Widow would have easily walked off with the show. Singer/bassist Hannah Lew basically said as much while¬† gloating about being one of the only people in the room who’d already seen Wild Flag play. “They are shockingly good, especially since they just started,” she said. “It kinda pisses me off.”

Regardless, Grass Widow is an excellent, excellent trio of musicians. I was somewhat concerned they’d lapse into the overdone Vivian Girls/Dum Dum Girls model of lo-fi garage girl groups, but they were far more melodic and powerful (not to mention less affected). Definitely one to keep watching.

Janet Weiss

And then, it was finally time. Although the big reveal of Wild Flag was a bit anticlimactic. Despite the iconic status of its members, the band seems dedicated to paying its dues as though it were merely a brand new band, playing tiny venues (Brownstein lamented that their show the previous night in Sacramento had been “at a toilet,” a.k.a. The Hub, although she quickly added it had been one of their favorite shows to date; however, she pointed out that Timony literally had to stand in the bathroom to watch Grass Widow) and setting up all their equipment themselves.

So, rather than have one heart-pounding moment where these pillars of indie rock triumphantly take the stage, we were treated to 20 minutes of Weiss assembling her drum kit and Brownstein on her hands and knees fussing with power strips. But the between-set music was a pleasing mix of PJ Harvey and Portishead, so I certainly didn’t mind.

Then, once the equipment was set up, Brownstein needed a drink. “Could someone please buy me a Jameson on the rocks?” she asked into her mic. Nothing. “Someone buy Carrie a drink!” Weiss commanded. I guess it didn’t look like anyone was responding, so Weiss continued her plea. “We’re not kidding! Carrie has given you many great musical moments. The least you can do is buy her a whiskey.” Eventually someone acquiesced, and the drink was slowly passed to the front of the room (“The best crowd-surf I’ve ever seen,” quipped Weiss). Brownstein took a leisurely sip, glanced around, and said, “We are actually going to play some music tonight, by the way.” And so they did.

Carrie Brownstein

How to describe Wild Flag’s music? I know this is probably the biggest question for the expectant fans, especially since they won’t be releasing any studio tracks until next year: but what do they sound like? And, inevitably, I’m going to choke under pressure, because I’m really bad at describing music itself. I will say this: it is not merely Helium meets Sleater-Kinney crossed with The Minders. Wild Flag is more that the sum of its parts.

Their music is charging, exhilarating, and crazy-fun. Many of the songs clock in around the three-minute mark, although there were several lengthy jam sessions (“That was a Katy Perry song,” Brownstein joked after one particularly ferocious bluesy jam which found her playing her guitar while standing on Weiss’ bass drum, then while laying face down on the stage, then while on her back; Timony also showed off by playing her guitar slung behind her head).

All four women sing on most of the tracks, with Brownstein and Timony doing the majority of vocals. Weiss’ drum-playing is as thunderous and mind-blowing as ever; it is truly a gift to watch this woman work. Cole’s contributions on keyboard and vocals are absolutely vital to the band’s playful sound. Timony seemed slightly out of her element, despite returning to a harder rock sound on her Mary Timony Band album after a decade of somewhat more intimate music. Still, it was thrilling to see her, and my heart nearly exploded each time she and Brownstein rocked their guitars together at the center of the stage. It just felt so…historic.

Mary Timony

And then there’s Brownstein. Toward the end of the show, she thanked the audience for coming, adding that they are “still learning how to be a band,” and that starting a new band is “hard, but also liberating.” If there was one word I’d choose to describe Brownstein last night, it would be “liberated.” Having seen Sleater-Kinney in concert five or six times over the years, I have never seen her as explosive and elastic as she was at this gig. You can feel the newfound freedom coursing through her veins just by watching her. Wild Flag is definitely about all of its members, but Brownstein can’t help but be the star.

Despite having released zero songs, Wild Flag played a full-length set last night. There’s no way of knowing which of these songs will make it to the album, but based on this show, there’s no shortage of songs being written. And if their album is anything like this show, it will unquestionably be one of the best of the year. They also played three terrific cover songs: “Dirty Water,” “Beast of Burden” by The Rolling Stones, and, most amazingly, “Ask the Angels” by Patti Smith.

“Ask the Angels” was their final song of the night, during their encore. “Guess who won the National Book Award?” Brownstein quietly asked. “Patti Smith.” And with that, one of the most explosive musical performances I’ve ever seen launched into action. I’m surprised I even survived. There was a moment when I thought to myself, “I am watching Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, and Janet Weiss play ‘Ask the Angels.'” But I had to stop thinking about it. It was nearly too much.

It was also nearly too much for several people toward the front of the stage, because Brownstein became a bit physically reckless while channeling Miss Patti Lee. Granted, it’s nearly impossible not to get fired up while singing this song, but if you’re not careful, you can get too fired up (as Smith herself will attest, since she famously broke two vertebrae in her neck after falling off a Florida stage while performing it, temporarily halting her music career).

But Brownstein was not the victim last night. Rather, our own intrepid Spinning Platters photographer, Christopher Rogers, had Timony’s mic stand kicked (with no small amount of force) directly into him by Ms. Brownstein. But not to worry: he reports that he was “surprised but unharmed,” and quickly reassembled the stand and put it back on stage for Timony. Now that’s a fan.

Wild Flag will also be playing at The Hemlock on Monday night. If you can find a way to get yourself some tickets, I suggest you do it. This is history in the making.

Wild Flag's set list

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Layton Johnston April 12, 2011 at 10:43 am

Great pictures! I’m really excited for all these girls have to offer. If you’re into this style of music, I just read a great feature about female supergroups: http://www.ourstage.com/blog/2011/4/11/girl-power-punk-wild-flag

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