If you like Wilco‘s music even a little, you need to see them before Jeff Tweedy retires. They combine seemingly boundless enthusiasm for playing with impeccable style and great talent.
Capturing the magic of a Wilco show without over-praise is quite possibly the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in years. Given the circumstances, I’ll do the opposite of an old constructive criticism tactic: instead of surrounding the harsh reality with two positive aspects, I will surround the pleasant reality with two of the show’s negative aspects. That ought to minimize the effect of what I’m sure will amount to nonstop Tweedy-worship.
First off, I’d like to register my complaint that I had to drive more than four hours from Chicago to Indianapolis (including at least an hour in traffic going 10 MPH on 80/94) to see a Chicago-based band. The least that Wilco could do after putting out a masterpiece like Sky Blue Sky would be to show it off to their loyal locals.
We made it, though, and the evening kicked off with Low — an interesting three-piece ambient rock outfit with a new record, Drums and Guns, out on SubPop. The fact that we were sitting right in front of the most annoying pair of chatterboxes spoiled what I am sure would have been an excellent opening act. Naturally, these clucking chicks did not shut up for the entire show (until they left for some unexplained reason). I’ll never understand why people will pay to see a band live, then chat their goddam heads off the whole time.
When the house lights dimmed and Wilco appeared, we prepared to be shown a thing or two, and things were shown in spades.
Seeing Tweedy’s enthusiasm at the crowd’s reaction to “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” was electrifying, and so was Nels Cline’s guitar work. Cline, Wilco’s semi-recent-avant-jazz addition, generally tore it up all evening, but he kicked all of our asses most thoroughly on the Sky Blue Sky songs, especially on “Impossible Germany,” where he and Tweedy stood face to face as they each played their respective solos. The effect was beautiful.
Jeff really only paused to ask how we were doing a few times; he was not as engaging as he is during the solo outings. He did, however, pause after “Sky Blue Sky” to inform us that Wilco had started a macramé collection, and that they as a band only has one piece so far, an owl (an obvious reference to The Owl & The Bear) that was soon lowered from the ceiling. Jeff asked if the crowd was willing to donate anything, and a bracelet was tossed up for Mikael Jorgenson to tie around the owl’s neck.
The Indianapolis crowd added a new feature to the song “Shake It Off” (a big loud “WOO!” in between the eponymous refrains) that Jeff teased after the song was over.
While the three guitarists (Pat Sansone, the multi-instrumentalist, had picked up a guitar) were trying to perfect the distortion at the beginning of “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” Glenn stood up and held his arms out like an 80s rock-drummer-god to thunderous applause.
The show’s defining moment was a fifteen-plus minute medley in which “Sunken Treasure,” seamlessly dissolved from a solo acoustic number into the chaotic electronic orgy of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” As the rhythms pulsated in the background, each of the members had their moment to shine in this crowning jewel of the setlist. When the song appeared to be over, and the only members still playing were Kotche and Jorgensen, the audience clapped in unison to the beat. The song slowly quieted and faded to nothing, but the crowd held the beat for at least thirty seconds, before speeding the tempo like at a sporting event. As we clapped faster and faster until we reached a climax, Wilco kicked right back into another full minute of “Spiders'” most intense and heavy moment.
After this climax, Wilco had little choice but to fall back on some tried-and-true standards. Surprisingly, not a single cut from A.M. was played throughout the night, and just a few songs from Being There, A Ghost is Born, and the two Mermaid Avenues made an appearance. Songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are still well-ingrained in the setlist, though. It’s odd that Jeff, who tends to downplay the significance of YHF, would choose to play so many tracks from that album.
I had hoped to come up with another criticism by the time I came to the end of this review, but the only thing I can say is that I wished they could have played “Company In My Back” and “Passenger Side.” Not really much of a criticism, in retrospect.
Here’s the set list, courtesy of the good people at WilcoBase:
1. A Shot In The Arm
2. Side With The Seeds
3. You Are My Face
4. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
6. Handshake Drugs
7. War On War
8. Impossible Germany
9. Sky Blue Sky
10. Jesus, Etc.
11. Hate It Here
13. Shake It Off
14. I’m The Man Who Loves You
16. Sunken Treasure
17. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
18. Heavy Metal Drummer
19. Outtasite (Outta Mind)
20. California Stars