All words: Jeb Gavin & John Foster
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
Back in the ‘90s when the internet was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I fell hopelessly in love with Liz Phair and her first album Exile in Guyville. This alt rock vestige was as close as I came to listening to anything resembling riot grrrl until I began listening to Le Tigre a decade later. While not ignorant of what I used to dickishly refer to as “lady-punk,” back then I largely ignored bands like Bikini Kill, The Slits and most notably, Sleater-Kinney.
I used to swap my sister’s Mary Prankster discs out of the CD pop-ska pabulum. As an old, stupid man looking back on my younger, somehow stupider self, I regret the records I didn’t listen to, though it is likely I’ll make that mistake again, considering Wild Flag’s killer show Monday night at the 9:30 Club.
Wild Flag is comprised of former members of Sleater-Kinney, the Minders, Quasi, Helium, and a few other indie, alt rock, and riot grrrl bands I foolishly ignored back in the day. Now Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole, and Janet Weiss throw down no-nonsense rock with all the intensity and wit of their earlier bands, minus my own crass opinions of such. Even with Brownstein mellowed by the flu and Timony distracted by the NCAA basketball championship, the foursome ground through a set I was told to expect, but had no way of anticipating.
As is my bad habit, I began by noting the band’s choice of instrumentation. The group lacked a bassist, but doubled up on the guitars and threw a keyboard in the mix. It served for each of the skronking jams and droning solos tossed off in song after song. Occasional tempo changes and slower, more expansive fretwork seemed to be the only low points during the entire set- but only in timing, not in emotion. Most notable for me was Weiss’s hammer-of-the-gods drumming. I don’t want to couch any reference of this band in terms of gender or gender roles, but this was an amazing piece of drum work for man or woman.
Home after the show, I found myself piecing through her back catalog, discovering albums I loved to which I was completely unaware of her contributions. Chalk another one up to me being an idiot. At times the group reminded me of a post-White Blood Cells White Stripes, but without the need for costumes, unnecessary back story, or color-coded props.The relatively short hour long set featured little chaff. Brownstein only briefly chatted with the crowd, as both the band and audience were more content with the music than any other trappings of a show.
Aside from a few lighting cues (and Carrie joking about the lighting cues), there was no frippery. They came; they rocked; they left the stage. The brief encore which followed was only a couple songs, capped by a less aggressive though no less menacing cover of Fugazi’s “Margin Walker”. Carrie said she expected most of the DC audience wouldn’t place the DC band’s tune. Even if no one recognized the song (unlikely), it was still well received.
After the show, I found myself thinking, “this is what a rock show is supposed to sound like: sparse and intense and great.” It also crossed my mind that a show like this was, at least to the casual observer, devoid of sexual politics. But perhaps this is the final evolution of riot grrrl–great music which happens to be played by women, not lady-punk.
- And now a few words from The Most Accomplished BYTer, our hero John Foster :
I never ever get tired of watching Mary Timony play guitar. Never.
She even manages to work out the kinks after a prolonged burst of Eddie Van Halenesque fingertapping runs by shaking her hands in time to the music. Charm for miles. The same is true of all the members of Wild Flag. Rebecca coyly begging the crowd not to tell her the score of the basketball battle royal and then shimmying for all she’s worth while she infuses the songs with game-changing keyboard bursts. Janet providing the muscle that turns this band into the non stop machine that it has become, while still sweetening the vocals time and again. Carrie giving it everything while battling the flu, seeming to lose a few pounds by sets end from her wiry energy (not that she has any to lose.)
They relish being in a rock band and they clearly relish being able to do this together. The number of little smiles that sneak out all throughout the set is as telling a nod as one will ever see. Decades of playing it straight have made kicking out the jams and having fun a major priority here. They even manage to out psych all of the pretenders on “Glass Tambourine.” The thumping beats and guitar battles in the new songs make sense of the soundtrack filled with Mountain and Grand Funk Railroad playing between sets. Serious punch and dynamics. They haven’t given up the new wave angles that make the first album so much fun, “Romance” being a big stand out here) but they are taking advantage of the inherent power in their personnel.
The real key to Wild Flag for me is the way they manage to make you root for them and you desperately want them to succeed – a pretty rare quality in a band that has zero underdog qualities in their current form (you only get to play the female rocker card once, unfortunately.) I can’t think of any other band that I wouldn’t be mildly annoyed about one of the members being on a snarky TV show (not that I don’t like snarky) or intentionally shooting down the middle lyrically. But they pull it off. All of it.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Wild Flag live is the wonderful grab bag of covers that they have at their disposal. They encore with a stellar version of Television’s “See No Evil” (hey, I know where those snaky guitar lines in “Romance” came from…) before doing something I couldn’t imagine anyone effectively accomplishing before this moment – they close the show with a cover of the Fugazi classic “Margin Walker.” Covering Fugazi in general seems like total insanity to me, much less doing so on the 930 stage, but here they are, with Carrie going hoarse and Mary grinning throughout the song… and… it is… perfect.
No one else would have the balls to do that.
Except these women.