When I saw Wilco lead singer/founder Jeff Tweedy play a solo concert at Messiah College six months ago, I came home convinced his band was getting in the way of his songwriting.
Funny how things change, huh? Because after catching that aforementioned band in all its glory Saturday night in Williamsburg, I’m now convinced they’re one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen.
For a while there—until about 10 days ago, I guess—I thought my love for Wilco had run its course. I managed to find the beauty in 2002’s eccentric “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” but the follow-up, 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born,” was just too far over the line: Too many bells, whistles, and squeaks. I just didn’t have the patience to listen to it enough times for it to sink in. If Tweedy wanted to go all art-house, fine. God bless. I’ll see you later.
And then I found out Wilco was playing within driving distance of my house and couldn’t turn down the opportunity—one last shot in the arm.
I had seen the setlists from the past couple years, so I knew what I was getting into: Most everything was going to come from the last two albums. So, I figured it was time to finally listen—really listen—to “A Ghost Is Born.” If I’m gonna go to the trouble of driving to Williamsburg, I may as well know the new stuff as well as possible, even if I don’t like it.
So with that purpose in mind, I revisited “Ghost” with an open mind (or chained myself to it against my will, maybe) and it just … clicked. Not all at once, but something was there. It started with “Company in My Back”—and not even the whole song, but the little sprinkling of notes at the end of the chorus (Is it a guitar? Is it a synthesizer? Some other instrument? I have no idea, but it sounds great). I know it sounds so navel-gazing-art-house-reject, but it’s true; those few little bars buried in the midst of a five-minute song struck a chord in me, and it unlocked the entire album. Because after “Company” comes “I’m A Wheel,” an instantly accessible rocker out of the “classic” Wilco style, and then “Theologians,” a song I rediscovered at the solo show last year. Skip over the disastrous “Less Than You Think” and its 12 minutes of atonal squall, and the album closes with “The Late Greats”—at first cheesy, but eventually one of the catchiest tunes in Tweedy’s deep catalog.
So I lived with this album off and on for a week—in the car, the office, the subway, the walk home—and I finally came to enjoy it.
I didn’t come to love it until Saturday night.
Looking back, I now know the problem with these last two albums all along: They just can’t translate to a live setting, I thought, which means they’re just musical meanderings for a wannabe-auteur playing with knobs in the studio thinking he’s Phil Spector or David Gilmour or something.
I was dead wrong.
Tweedy and his five mates create one of the most glorious noises I’ve ever heard in concert. Saturday’s show was—hands down, no questions asked—the tightest set I’ve ever seen from any band at any venue on any day of my entire life. Even U2 and the E Street Band, with their endless rehearsals and drive for perfection, didn’t give me the sense of pure, intense musical adventure and endeavor that I saw this weekend from Wilco—it was like art being created live in front of a few thousand people. The same bells and whistles from the albums were all there, in the right places, and all in perfect time with guitar, drum, and bass. And yet it didn’t feel rote, either. These guys are just absolutely ON FIRE right now, at the peak of their game, and the results were thrilling to say the least, from opener “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” to “Ashes of American Flags” (a stunner in the middle of the set—a song I never really cared for until now) to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (which felt like it deserved its full 10 minutes, unlike the more tepid album version). I was amazed at how much power there is in this new version of the band (Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the only original members left after 11 years and five albums); there are hidden reservoirs here that just don’t translate on record.
Which brings me to my own little broken-record-of-the-concert-review moment. I’ll go back and listen to “Foxtrot” and “Ghost” with new fervor now after this show, but nothing compares to what these songs become when played live—at least when they’re played like this. Glenn Kotche is an absolute monster on drums, but his wide-ranging talents are muffled on “A Ghost Is Born”; newcomer (but guitar-wielding veteran) Nels Cline is a welcome addition, ripping through several screaming solos Saturday (including a revamped finale for “Ashes”). Cline brings a welcome edge and weight to the proceedings, adding to the group’s overall power (when there’s four electric guitars up there at the same time, this band can now hold their own and wail with the best of them). And as for Tweedy, his entire delivery flows much better in person; a song like “At Least That’s What You Said,” with its choppy, near-whisper opening stanza, is fuller and more melodic when he stands under the lights.
Wilco played one new song in Williamsburg, “Walken,” an old-school stomper that stood out even on a night full of high points. It will be interesting to see what direction the next album follows; if this song is any sign, maybe Tweedy feels he’s taken his current trip as far as it will go and is now turning back to his roots after a decade spent running away from them. Who knows? When Tweedy goes into the studio, obviously anything goes.
Say that theory holds, though, it will also be interesting to see what happens to future setlists. Wilco’s songs may all have the same author, but that doesn’t mean they fit well together. Cruising the message boards for fan reaction to Saturday’s show, I was intrigued to see how much people complain about the lack of older material—I thought that was for people like me, the unenlightened who didn’t care for the last two records. Now I find I’ve flipped, just like that. If someone had told me 10 days ago I’d enjoy—no, LOVE—a Wilco show where 15 of the 19 songs came from “Foxtrot” and “Ghost,” I’d have called that person crazy.
But I sat there, in a converted basketball arena of all places, pinned to my seat all night, stunned at how fascinating the newer material is in person. The three “oldies” seemed almost … simplistic by comparison. Not worse, mind you (come on, I’ll never complain about “A Shot in the Arm,” “Via Chicago,” and “Kingpin” (the latter with a hilarious call-and-response section in the middle)), just not quite as interesting on this particular night. Sure, we’re all beggin’ for “Casino Queen,” but the old stuff wouldn’t have meshed well with what Wilco has been attempting onstage for the past two years. There was an overall intensity of the endeavor that was completely unexpected, and I can only assume that feeling is generated by the sheer complexity of taking these songs on the road.
I haven't figured out yet why Tweedy insists on using all these strange sounds; the theory I'm working on goes something like, "the dissonance makes the portions of melody even more prominent and important." Nevertheless, Tweedy is certainly one of the most challenging musicians in rock and roll, playing and working at the highest level of his career. I can’t wait—now—to see where he goes from here.
William and Mary Hall
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
War on War
Company in My Back
Hell Is Chrome
A Shot in the Arm
At Least That’s What You Said
Ashes of American Flags
I’m the Man Who Loves You
The Late Greats
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m A Wheel