"We are Wild Flag. We've never played a show outside our practice space so thanks for coming to this one."
Those were Carrie Brownstein's first words at the first show for her new supergroup, featuring 90s indie icons Mary Timony of Helium, the Minders' Rebecca Cole, and Brownstein's Sleater-Kinney bandmate Janet Weiss. The location? Olympia, Washington, the city where many of the era's finest riot grrrl bands formed. As Brownstein noted, "I'm pretty sure 90 percent of my bands played their first show in Olympia. It's nice to continue that tradition."
Helluva tradition: Olympia was the birthplace of Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and Weiss's most well-known band, the one once described by Time as "America's best rock band." The Northern, a cramped, repurposed art gallery on Olympia's low-budget 4th Avenue, was an appropriately humble setting for a gloriously raucous, reckless, 50-minute performance. The feeling was less polished rock 'n' roll machine, more shambling, spirited house party put on for 200 die-hard admirers.
Even as she ceded lead guitar duties to Timony, Brownstein was the charismatic captain of Wild Flag's ship, alternating between mile-wild smile and neck-snapping bark, buoyed by Weiss's easy, steady pulse behind the kit. Cole switched from electric piano to organ, power pop to heavy blues, while Timony peeled off complex, hard-charging guitar leads. All four sang Go-Go-ish ooh-oohs while trading nervous, are-we-really-doing-this glances throughout the set.
They opened with the rumbling "Arabesque" and raced straight into "Endless Talk," both of which mashed bouncy pop-punk with Led Zep swagger. "Glass Tambourine" was a woozy, meandering psych-rock burner, Timony on vocals, Cole adding eerie effects on keys. It crescendoed with Brownstein wringing the neck of her guitar like a goose, the cathartic highlight of the night.
"We're halfway done with the amount of songs we have," Brownstein said after the first three numbers. But the set turned out to include a dozen tunes, including an uptempo jam titled "Dance 2" ("Thanks to you guys that are dancing without hearing the songs before," Brownstein said to the gaggle of pogoers at the front of the tiny stage. "It's very validating.") and the roaring "Racehorse." ("I'm a racehorse," Brownstein belted. "Put your money on me!") "Electric Band" turned from blistering to beautiful as Timony and Brownstein traded licks that slowly faded out.
Wild Flag rounded out the set with a couple covers, both of which were cheat-sheeted with guitar tabs and lyrics taped to the stage: the Velvet Underground's simple, sunny "She's My Best Friend," sung by Weiss, the whole group in harmony on the chorus, the words given extra sweetness in an all-girl band. Later,they ripped into "Dirty Water," the Standells' 1960s garage rock classic, which Wild Flag brought to bluesy, chugging bliss.
None of these songs had been performed before and there were plenty of kinks to work out. Some were false-started, others sputtered out or wrecked at the end. Yet the kernels of Wild Flag's songs bode well for the album. And that was the thrill - catching four seasoned musicians at a rare, unguarded moment, experimenting with something new and unfamiliar.