Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives
Nov. 4, 2011
Great American Music Hall
Better than: FM 107.7 The Bone -- usually.
Wild Flag played its fifth-ever live show in San Francisco almost a year ago, for a sold-out, ecstatic crowd at Bottom of the Hill. At the time, singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein modestly told the audience that her first musical project since breaking up Sleater-Kinney was "just up here learning how to be a band."
Twelve months later, after these Pacific Northwest indie rock vets put out one of the year's best guitar records and played dozens more live dates, San Francisco got a chance to see what kind of band Wild Flag has learned to be. Friday's performance at Great American Music Hall, the first of two nights, was more polished and more subdued than last year's raucous performance, but more celebratory, and every bit as satisfying as that first show.
It helped that, this time around, the audience had a chance to hear the band's music before the show. And Wild Flag's set focused on exhibiting the band's muscular debut album: The quartet opened with "Electric Band," ran into "Short Version," and then went to "Future Crimes" -- three of its best songs. The crowd cheered especially hard for "Future Crimes," and a few other songs, but this was a uniformly adoring group. There were so many smiles among the forest of bodies on the main floor that singer/guitarist Mary Timony called them out after the fifth song, commenting on the hugely positive vibes in the room.
Wild Flag still marries its punk-grade attack and feisty shouting with an old-school rock 'n' roll tunefulness. And it was striking to realize how much of the band's songs are built around the guitar leads of Brownstein and Timony, who traded off solo and rhythm duties. Timony played the leads in "Something Came Over Me" just as she does on the album, but onstage they seemed even more evocative and melancholy. Subtle but vital, Rebecca Cole's keyboard playing provided a deep, slow counterpoint to all the six-string alchemy happening onstage, and Janet Weiss' drumming underlaid every song with a sense of fluidity and motion.
Nearly every song on the 10-track debut got an airing, but there were a few surprises -- most notably the extended jams tacked onto "Glass Tambourine" and "Racehorse," plus two strong new songs. The jamming mostly worked, especially since Brownstein's idea of an extended guitar solo is more like guitar abuse, with her pressing the instrument's neck into the stage, leaning into it, and draping the cable over the strings to incite vicious feedback. But after the noisemaking reached several peaks and valleys on "Racehorse," it began to seem like Brownstein was dragging out the mischief longer than anyone but her wanted.
Thankfully, there was a big, juicy surprise at the end of the show. Wild Flag has a budding reputation for performing excellent covers of rock classics -- its first S.F. show included songs by the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground. Timony had joked that "The Rainbow Connection" (y'know, from the Muppets) was one of her and Brownstein's warm-up songs, and threatened to cover it. But instead, Wild Flag issued two classics: A rousing take on Bobby Freeman's "Do Ya Wanna Dance" and Television's "See No Evil," whose twin-guitar attack is one forerunner to Wild Flag's own serpentine leads. It was a great reminder of where this band is coming from, musically and spiritually. The question now, after Wild Flag's successful introduction, debut album, and live show, is where will it go next?
Opener: I found Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives annoying and overwrought, but I only caught the last two or so songs. It's possible that the band had brought the audience to a place where its slow-motion vamping and extended moans were working some kind of magic.
Personal bias: We'll know Wild Flag is really good when it makes an album as good as the Woods. (That's not out of the realm of possibility, but it hasn't happened yet.)