Wild Flag Rocks Our Faces Off, Covers the Stones and the VU at Bottom of the Hill

Categories: Last Night
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Wild Flag at Bottom of the Hill last night
Wild Flag
Grass Widow
Royal Baths
November 18, 2010
@ Bottom of the Hill

Better than: Performing in a toilet.

Carrie Brownstein, you are way too fucking modest. 

"We're just up here learning how to be a band," she said, near the end of Wild Flag's fifth show ever -- a guitar-squelching, shrill-shouting, grin-plastering steamroll of a rock-out set last night at Bottom of the Hill that if nothing else proved, Carrie, that you and your crew know quite damn well how to be a band.

But then, when your outfit is a so-called supergroup -- Sleater-Kinney's Brownstein and Janet Weiss, Helium's Mary Timony, the Minders' Rebecca Cole (all of whom have played in a zillion other Portland/Olympia bands together) -- and it sells out its fifth show without ever releasing a note of recorded music, maybe you are just grateful and pleased and kind of even perhaps surprised. Last night, the ladies seemed as genuinely flattered to see a full house as we were excited to see them.

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Any background levels of anticipation for the show were greatly heightened by the charming lasses of second-act Grass Widow, who bolstered their own gleaming reputation for dry, squirrelly, earworm art-punk. "They're so good, it's ridiculous," gushed Hannah Lew about the headliners, towards the end of her band's set. "I'm kinda pissed about it."

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Grass Widow
The members of Wild Flag prepared their own gear, but when it came time to play, Brownstein decided her bottle of Bud Light just wouldn't do. "I would love a Jameson on the rocks," she said -- but there was no traveling anywhere inside the club at this point. So after a few reminders and moments of sincerety-implying silence, a full amber glass came surfing along the top of the crowd. "I'm watching that thing, no roofies," she said -- as the anticipation crested -- then the band kicked out a false, note-length start, and then, on the second try, Wild Flag detonated its sonic bomb, a hybrid of shrill, Sleater-Kinney-flavored punk and fortified grunge riffage, led by two face-shredding guitars. Those six-string lines tangled and then halted suddenly, only to recur later. Loud rockers unwound into plaintive finales. Said guitars would often condense into fuzzy solos, with Brownstein using phasing and other effects for texture. Rebecca Cole's keyboard apparatus served double duty as bass and a splattery melody machine -- its surprising entrances made for some of the night's best songs. The more sing-y Timony shared vocal duties with the more shout-y Brownstein (the lipstick-crimson flesh of her upper lip curling mischievously over the microphone), although all the ladies sang on at least a few songs. Several had them all singing at once, Sleater-Kinney style.

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Mostly dazed, the tight crowd bounced lightly while a few people (hey, girl with smelly hair) tried in vain to start a 'pit. But landing just this side of that hazy rock/punk line -- they covered the 'Stones' "Beast of Burden" and the Velvet Underground's "She's My Best Friend" -- Wild Flag made for better foot-tapping than fist-throwing. Too much to watch, also -- for a band that's allegedly still learning how to be, all three mobile members worked their pieces of stage. Timony shot her Fender up in the air, played behind her head and threw her tall frame around; Cole bounced profusely; Brownstein did a stilted-march thing where she threw her leg up high, shoved her slender figure into all sorts of nearly horizontal angles, and at one point laid down -- for a good while -- in the middle of a song. All this, be assured, was not the work of beginners.

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Royal Baths (disclaimer) began the night with dirge-y plods through huge dark forests of fuzz and clatter. If Hitchcock had coached the Velvet Underground instead of Andy Warhol, and he got two skinny-ass S.F. rock dudes to front the thing, this is what it would sound like. The live set is, pleasingly, meatier than the still-excellent debut album, Litanies, and thankfully, both Jigmae Baer and, especially, Jeremy Cox, know how to convulse while torturing a power chord and a whammy bar. There isn't another local band like this.

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Royal Baths
Critic's Notebook

With all due respect to the state capitol: "Last night we played in a toilet in Sacramento" -- Carrie Brownstein's way of saying Wednesday's venue was intimate.

Semi-informed generalization about the crowd: Cool people. Not hipster cool, but awesome cool: lady punks, rawk dudes who did a tour through every outlaw guitar-music skirmish since the Sex Pistols, hippy daddies hitting bowls on the patio, and more lady punks.

Facial expressions: Brownstein looked stoic -- like she was steeling herself for battle -- while setting up for the show. But during the set she let out some panoramic grins. It would be hard not to have a good time playing Wild Flag's music.

Possible fact: A girl in the crowd told us that the big brown box that houses Cole's keyboard was custom-built for her by a casket maker. It did look rather like a death box.

For what it's worth: The song I had stuck deepest in my head at the end of the show was Grass Widow's "Shadow."

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