It would be really easy to start this review with some grand claims about rock music’s present and future. I could label some trends, chart a trajectory, invoke a metaphorical finger and find a pulse to put it on. If I were confident enough in my prognosis, I might even mention the zeitgeist. Most of today’s rock bands, self-consciously committed to either perverting or preserving the genre, demand it. Generic reflection and Chicken-Little posturing are the name of today’s game. But Wild Flag, who at Toad’s last Friday, March 30 played the best concert I’ve been to in months, don’t seem to give a shit. No one I’m familiar with more comfortably and completely embodies the genre’s original ideals of raw power and impudence, what Ellen Willis called “a sense of entitlement to seize the world.” Which, of course, makes them all the more fertile a subject for that type of tired tropes I said I would abandon.
Rewind: I was raised on rock music. My dad inculcated me with a love of the greats, both within and outside of the canon. Every so often, his car stereo would offer up a female voice — Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones and Liz Phair were all early mainstays. But, in keeping with the regrettable reality of music (and every other) history, the most storied and acclaimed stars, the ones who packed the biggest punch and filled the biggest stadiums, were men.
Fast-forward: in September, Wild Flag released my favorite album of 2011. The band is something of a super group, consisting of four impeccably credentialed women: Carrie Brownstein (vocals and guitar) and Janet Weiss (drums) made their names in Sleater-Kinney, the most successful and longest lasting band to emerge from the early ’90s Riot Grrrl scene, while Mary Timony (vocals and guitar) and Rebecca Cole (keyboards) cut their teeth playing with Helium and the Minders, respectively. Given the group’s impressive pedigree, I prepared myself before their self-titled album’s release for a solid but underwhelming exercise in nostalgia. While these women are all too good at playing and performing by now to affect irreverent amateurism, the album is neither wary nor conservative. Their sound is informed by — but distinct from — each member’s earlier projects. And it rocks. Hard.
At last Friday’s concert, the crowd reflected both the band’s long history and its fresh energy, made up of equal parts screaming teenagers and baby boomers. From the very first song, it was clear that we were in for a capital-R, capital-S Rock Show. Cole bounced and swayed behind her keyboard; Weiss pounded at the floor tom as if punishing it for something; Timony and Brownstein kicked, snarled, ducked, and strutted across the stage (in heels!) with more swagger than the Stones. But when they came face to face with one another, they were all smiles.
And this (for me) is Wild Flag’s great work of magic: the band closes the gap between killer rock star and adoring fan, managing to kick serious ass without the attendant alienation of arena-rock theatrics or bar-band hostility. They owned the stage, unequivocally, but invited the audience to share in that power. From the second row, Timony’s booted foot planted on the monitor five feet from my face, they looked both ferocious and endearing. I spent the whole night wavering between wanting to be their groupie and wanting to be their friend. Honestly, I’d take either.
Between songs, Brownstein bantered obligingly. She described the game playing over the bar as “like Friday Night Lights, but basketball” (the TV was turned off by the next mic break) and thanked us at the end of their set “for being so … vociferous?” But when the music picked up, she could howl like an animal. Timony, her recorded voice thick and round, yelped and pouted through her verses as if for her own amusement. They closed their last song before the encore with an extended jam, Brownstein and Timony trading guitar solos, the familiar riffs unraveling into something looser, less melodic, more primal. At one point Brownstein shook off her guitar strap and lifted the instrument above her head. I froze, waiting for her to smash it to the ground. Instead she just held it there, one-handed, her back to the audience, as if the guitar were no heavier than a glass of water. She had no discernable point to make other than the sheer fact of her own strength. And man, did she make it.