Wild Flag: Year Two is in in effect. It’s been thirteen months since the band played NY for the first time at Brooklyn’s The Rock Shop to a crowd of eighty. They’ve since managed to sell out their three following headlining shows in the city. Webster Hall is a big room but for a band that has played Radio City and outdoor spaces like Williamsburg Waterfront, it seems the proper containment for their sound. I used to call Webster Hall my least favorite show space in New York, but their sound system has vastly improved and their crowds have shut up, at least the few times I’ve been back over the last couple years. Wild Flag at Webster Hall last week showed a band on close to the last leg of their tour behind their self-titled debut, and already you can see the band itching to get back into a studio.
Subtle additions to songs from their 2011 LP made for an interesting turn to songs I’ve now seen played four times. Whether it’s Rebecca Cole’s keys making more prominent and much appreciated appearances in nearly all the “old” songs, or the vocal harmonies they’ve managed to add into a few of their catchy choruses, the band is all for finding new ways to present the songs they’ve been playing for the last eighteen months. Cole incorporates a lot more left-hand keyboard playing, filling in the low-end void left by the band’s conscious decision to not have a bass player. Drummer Janet Weiss is on some songs playing entirely different things. The only other pop drummer playing as interesting and innovative as Weiss is The Roots’ ?uestlove. While both drummers come from completely different schools of learning, their sounds both stand out in an instrument that is often underrated in importance. Particularly the middle of “Glass Tambourine” where Weiss plays a completely interesting drum section that serves as the lead as the song approaches its ending, she is now playing a series of fills that differ greatly from what she played on record, and it still works perfectly.
Even the guitars which stand out as the lead instrument and the band’s most blatant element have found new variations through usage of different pedals or simply new strum patterns. Mary Timony’s fingertapping on “Short Version” has gone from a novelty to a revelation of what can be done with cliché in rock music when played in exactly the right way. Timony and Carrie Brownstein’s dual guitar chemistry is a part of their band that has only grown greater with every show. With so much innovation in electronic music, it’s sometimes hard to get excited about someone seemingly reinventing the wheel with guitar rock, but beneath the surface there’s a lot more going on with Wild Flag, and all these performances are helping to unravel talents of this band that even they were unaware of coming into their newest project. While often coming off as outdated and anachronistic, guitar rock has its place in modern music and when it’s well thought out it can still be riveting. Even older acts breaking in new ideas with their signature Telecasters can make significant records and put on shows rivaling those they had put on decades ago. I am of course talking about Bruce Springsteen and his latest effort “Wrecking Ball”.
Springsteen and an XL E Street Band have been out this year in support of their leader’s latest “Wrecking Ball” LP. With an added horn section in one corner and a couple of vocalists in the other, excess seems to be The Boss’s preferred method of coping. There’s no replacement for the presence that was Clarence Clemons, best friend to Bruce and one of the few who knew how to work a saxophone into rock music. Springsteen’s lyrics leak with instability and insecurity, and Clarence was always there to patch things up, a shoulder to lean on, most popularly and literally on the cover of the band’s “Born To Run”. “Losing Clarence is elemental, it’s like losing the rain” has been one of Bruce’s few quotes on the passing of their bandmate and both figurehead and backbone of The E Street Band. His absence prevailed over the entirety of the three hour show Friday night at Madison Square Garden, and more than ever a Bruce Springsteen show felt like the wake it truly is, rather than the overt celebration some interpret it to be.
The setlist concentrated heavily on “Wrecking Ball”. This record is dark even by Springsteen standards, and looks at the current state of the working class United States and supposes an even grimmer future. Eight of twenty-five songs came from the March release, and all worked better in the live setting than the record did them justice. Of the near dozen Springsteen shows I’ve seen, the 2006 “Seeger Sessions” show stands out as one of the best, and this latest incarnation of The E Street Band playing tracks from “Wrecking Ball” comes closest to that sound as ever before. Not only has he brought back the upbeat folk that made “The Seeger Sessions” so refreshing from a post-9/11 Bruce, but he brought back the lyrical content that made it known that he’s keeping up with the long struggle to get this country back on track after Reagan nearly decimated the whole thing. “Death to My Hometown” and “Shackled and Drawn” are two standouts with this combination, both live and on record with their personal and political battle cries for vengeance after a lifetime of being wronged. Bringing back “American Skin (41 Shots)” as the Trayvon Martin tragedy unravels, and especially playing the song in New York where the original influence of the song Amadou Diallo was murdered by four cops, was another smart move on the political side of Springsteen.
Outside of “Wrecking Ball”, Springsteen put on a performance any fan could be satisfied with. The obvious “Badlands”, “The Rising”, “Born To Run”, “Dancing In The Dark”, and the unbearable bathroom-breaker “Waiting on a Sunny Day” were all played. There’s not a conscious head in that crowd who wouldn’t say “Kitty’s Back” was the best of the night. With the horn section pumping out whatever they had left in them, and a Roy Bittan piano interlude that neared the three-minute mark, this was one of the single best song performances Bruce has graced the Garden with in his storied history with the arena. The last time I saw him there he played “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle” in its entirety. That setlist is real hard to beat, but the energy on Friday night now sets a new precedent for a future Bruce show to beat. “Nebraska” album cut “Johnny 99” was played in an arrangement similar to the full band setup he normally does, but again with the addition of the horns it turned it up even higher.
Bruce had mentioned how playing at The Apollo earlier in the tour had helped the band find an even greater appreciation for soul. This benefitted the energy of the arrangements, but made the acoustic tracks like “Jack of All Trades” seem even more out of place. If he can find a way to pull off the slower ballads like the soul heroes of The Apollo’s past, then this tour will end up another truly unique Springsteen experience. The soul came out on show ended “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” where Springsteen crawled around the stage and stormed about the arena. At the line “…and the big man joined the band”, the band pulled off a hard stop while a video of Clarence played out over the Garden’s screens. Springsteen stood in the middle of the crowd, head bowed, arm in the air, acknowledging the monumental presence he’ll never get back. In the midst of this, he seems especially grateful to the audience for being there with him to help his grieving process the only way he knows how. If the band in this setup sounds this good after less than dozen shows, I anticipate seeing them at the end of the summer when they inevitably return for a run at the new MetLife Stadium.