All words by Andy Johnson
All photos by Chris Chen
The Smashing Pumpkins are my favorite band of all time, so when I heard they were playing my favorite venue, I resigned myself knowing that I’d have to pony up the dough to see Corgan & Friends rip through the songs that defined my adolescence. The show itself was very good, and while I acknowledge the band’s post-00’s output is subpar, Corgan’s woefully underrated guitar mastery slightly makes up for his rampant douchebaggery.
Many near me in the 9:30 Club complained that the Pumpkins didn’t play hits like “1979” or “Tonight, Tonight,” but I was satisfied to hear deep cuts like “Thru the Eyes of Ruby,” “Geek USA,” and personal favorite “Muzzle.” My fanboyism may cloud my judgment, but a few of the new tracks sounded “acceptable” if not respectable. Now, I ain’t saying I’m gonna buy an album with a title as stupid as Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, but I’m definitely looking forward to stealing it.
However, even as Corgan and his mercenaries smashed through the set with a remarkable sense of professionalism – all business, no pleasure – there was this terrible disconnect between watching one of your heroes just go through the motions, exploiting nostalgia as a daily wage (Example: autographed tour posters cost $500!). The show was undeniably pleasing, as he knew how to push all the right buttons to make me mark out, but I came away feeling like I spent $60 to backslide with an ex-lover instead of pursuing a future romance.
I always have mixed feelings when I hear that yet another ‘90s group is reuniting. I relish the chance to hear the songs of my youth, but for every Dismemberment Plan reunion, you get stuck with a Stone Temple Pilots disaster. Just a head’s up to everyone looking forward to The Stone Roses play next year: Ian Brown could never sing worth a shit to begin with. Moreover, whenever a band is labeled as part of the ‘90s revival that’s currently en vogue in popular music, I suspect it’s a weasel term to describe the sounds made by grimy dudes who lack the ability to play their guitars well. No offense to Cymbal Eat Guitars or Surfer Blood, but there’s a reason why you can’t sell out the Black Cat.
When I heard about Wild Flag, I expressed cautious optimism. With half of the band consisting of former Sleater-Kinney members, I didn’t know if I wanted to spend time listening to S-K 2.0. It’s not like Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss would take a left-turn from their trademark grrl rock and release, say, a dubstep album. The addition of Mary Timony (who is one of BYT’s favs… especially behind the wheel. -Ed.), formerly of Helium, and Rebecca Cole, an affiliate of the Elephant Six Collective during her time in The Minders, added more clout that this “supergroup” would engorge the loins of every music critic in the Pacific Northwest. But as anyone who is familiar with the NBA knows, just because you line up a group of talented friends together, doesn’t mean you’ve got a winner.
Wild Flag’s self-titled album, released last month on Merge Records, has its share of delights, especially singles “Romance” and “Future Crimes,” but a fair half of the album (suffice to say, the songs where Timony sings) felt like middling NPR Rock. Many of the reviews for the album praise the “punk-rock women” for releasing a high-quality album, but I’ve always seen this as a weird backhanded compliment. You don’t see Rolling Stone giving props to Off! for being a bunch of middle-aged dudes tearing it up in dank night clubs. I have absolutely no doubt that women can rock just as hard as men – the Dum Dum Girls proved it last Saturday at the Black Cat and Amy Klein’s presence in the best little band in indie rock will be missed – and this is why I anxiously await Taylor Swift to “break bad.”
Those who saw the group on their earlier tour testified that Wild Flag lived up to the hype. Still, I had my doubts. I admit that I’m a punk ageist. One of the reasons why I never want to see Fugazi reunite is not because of MacKaye’s wonky psuedopolitical reasoning, but because, well, they’re old AF. Have you seen Bad Brains’ H.R. lately? Woof. To the aging punk bands of my youth, I say: I don’t care if you burn out or fade away, just don’t tarnish your legacy. Still, I’ll give H.R. some credit. At least he’s not collaborating with Metallica.
The Black Cat was more than half full for the opening set of Eleanor Friedberger, one half of The Fiery Furnaces, a group that someone continues to release albums despite me not knowing a single person who will admit to liking their music. It’s easier to find a Republican who’ll agree to raise taxes than a music fan who’ll admit to liking “Blueberry Boat.” This is a band that released a concept album about their grandmother. This is a band that released a cover album of their own songs. This is a band that, when they play live, don’t play “songs” as much as a jumble of everything they’ve released, spazzed out over an hour or so. And I was about to see the less creative half of the band? Oh boy.
We here at Brightest Young Things have a robust history with Freidbergers. And I was greatly relieved to see Freidberger and her band chose the more traditional route of, you know, playing a song followed by another song rather than the gobbledygook that the Furnaces try to peddle to their live audiences. She opened the set mentioning having played “downstairs” a few months ago with a song that she told the DC audience that she had just prepared, a spry indie pop number that would fit in snugly with “Last Summer,” her solo LP that was released to some acclaim last, uh, summer.
Indeed, Freidberger’s performance was the antithesis of a Fiery Furnaces show. I admit that I found her speak-singing to be a bit grating (“Inn Of The Seventh Ray”) at times, and I wish the band wasn’t a bit so, well, constrained, especially opening for what-I’ve-been-told was to be an explosive act. But with songs as smooth as “My Mistakes” (which you can watch a BYT acoustic session of right here – Ed.) and “Heaven,” it was sad that her performance was resigned to wallpaper as the DC crowd chatted over the majority of her set. I’m not going to lie and say that she wowed me – she didn’t – but I hope that her big brother will take some tips from lil sis about how a band should play live.
Friedberger was a respectable opener, but the crowd was amped to see Wild Flag. They took the stage after ten, which caused the group to joke to the slightly-older-than-usual crowd (I literally bumped into my old boss in the audience) that “Don’t you all have work tomorrow?” Timony started the set off with “Black Tiles,” a chunky number where she sings, “No one knows what happens next / There’s no answer and no guess.” Despite hailing from the other side of the country, it was Brownstein who showed more nerves than DC-native Timony, awkwardly chatting with the crowd (“Have you guys been to [Timony’s] house?”), and accidentally screwing up the start of a “Glass Tambourine.”
Since S-K dissolved, Brownstein’s kept busy blogging for NPR and lampooning yupsters with fellow punk rocker-turned-comedian Fred Armisen on the Independent Film Channel’s “Portlandia,” a snarky little show that I’m sure Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson DVR religiously. I liked that despite years of gigging with Sleater-Kinney (and bands before that), a veteran like Brownstein can still show some emotion on stage (unlike, say a certain bald ’90 rock star). When she acknowledged the simulcast for NPR as being like “having her brothers break into her diary a little bit,” her words felt genuine.
The highlights of the set included the rambunctious “Romance,” which the dual guitars of Brownstein and Timony were accompanied by Weiss’ automatic drumming, and “Glass Tamboruine,” a lackluster album track brought alive as it turned into a psychedelic freak-out. Single “Future Crimes” also whipped the crowd into a frenzy (or at least a little shuffle, which mind you, is more than I expected from the crowd at 11 pm on a Thursday) where Cole provided a syrupy organ line as Brownstein sang, “Caught in my life this time / cause I’m so hardwired / to be alone.” Hmm… with lyrics like that, maybe Bob Boilen should check in on his sister?
The band premiered two new songs – both excellent – the latter of which Timony dedicated to her guitar students who were assembled near the mixing board. The set concluded with an extended version of “Racehorse,” where the band did their best “Sister Ray” rendition as Brownstein turned into a banshee, screaming “Yeah I’m a racehorse / you put your money on me / You can’t love no one / You put your love on me” as she went bonkers in a way that would make Patti Smith proud. As Timony and Brownstein writhed on stage, I looked around at my fellow faces, mouths agape about the fury that lay before us. The entire set was excellent, but “Racehorse” was the moment Wild Flag graduated from a fearsome foursome to a much-see behemoth.
Speaking of Patti, the last time Wild Flag played in DC, they concluded their show with a cover of Smith’s “Ask The Angels.” Thus, it made perfect sense that the band would again acknowledge CBGB in the encore, busting out a lively rendition of Ramones’ “Judy is A Punk.” The rendition was a bit sloppy – they admitted they learned it earlier that day in sound check – but they followed it up with a perfect cover of Television’s “See No Evil.” As I watched Brownstein and Timony effortlessly mimic Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s delicate fretwork, I noticed Friedberg and her guitarist gleefully dancing along from the merchandise table, singing into an invisible microphone, miming along to the chant of “I see / I see / I see no evil!” After they noticed my voyeurism, the two quickly assembled themselves. I gave her a smile, and she smiled back, reassuring me that even rock stars get embarrassed.
This candid moment is the reason why I’m so skeptical of ‘90s reunions. These cozy moments of spontaneity would never occur at, say, a Bush show. Everything about the Pumpkins show was so professional and designed to achieve maximum nostalgic impact (it’s no wonder that Corgan refuses to delineate from a chosen set list each night) that it lacked any depth other than being able to check off “Starla” from the celestial list of songs-that-you’ve-seen-live. Wild Flag didn’t sound like a manufactured ‘90s act relying on their laurels to impress their audience – they went out there, acknowledged their past, and kicked your ass.
More snaps of WILD FLAG
More snaps of ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER (+ BAND)