Have you ever heard of this band Fleetwood Mac? Apparently they’ve sold several dozen million albums in the past 40 years. An average Goodwill crate-digger has probably only touched more records by Herb Alpert, and by a narrow margin. But for pop fans born after the group’s creative and commercial peak, that ubiquity is exactly what makes giving them a fair assessment something that’s easily put off till later. For any conscious person in America, however, having “never” heard Fleetwood Mac really means having at least heard every song on Rumours and half of the band’s self-titled 1975 album literally hundreds of times—in the car, at the grocery store—but perhaps never feeling prompted to dig deeper.
The hipster rediscovery of the challenging 1979 double-album Tusk has been easy to ignore, too, as another case of post-irony appropriation. But when a copy of Tusk finally floated my way back in February, I wasn’t prepared for the ease and totality of my conversion. And as good as the Nicks and McVie songs are, it’s particularly Lindsey Buckingham’s inscrutable, genuinely experimental songwriting and production that take so many newcomers from zero to disciple in such a short time. During a period of intense work, I listened to the album in its entirety as many as three times daily. This fixation actually put me in the unusual position of searching for a clean vinyl copy of Rumours (which, in a karmic move that couldn’t have been better scripted, somehow took weeks). It’s also what led me and one lucky guest on a road trip from Philadelphia to the front row of World Cafe Live in Wilmington, Delaware, on June 11th to lay our own eyes on the mad scientist who was able to make the guitars on “The Ledge” sound like a bunch of rubber bands, employed MIDI dog barking noises on the fade-out of “Holiday Road,” and, finally, after years of pop-phobic neglect, landed on Rolling Stone’s 2011 list of best guitarists of all-time.
World Cafe Live’s Queen Theater in downtown Wilmington is the centerpiece of a well-funded revitalization, a beautifully rehabbed former hotel with lots of uncovered original guts, exposed concrete and ghostly layers of paint. The night was billed as “An Intimate Evening with Lindsey Buckingham”, which in many cases, for many performers, could suggest a few things—subdued, maybe low energy, maybe entirely acoustic. From the moment he emerged, though, Buckingham beamed a concentrated intensity. He looked lean and healthy in jeans and a leather jacket, emitting a sort of cool, new age dad vibe. He stared straight up to the lights and out at the audience a few times, clasped his hands in a yoga pose to show thanks for the applause, and launched directly into straight-forward, athletically finger-picked readings of “Cast Away Dreams” and “Bleed to Love Her”.
After a few songs and as many guitar changes (there were no less than nine during the main set, nearly one for every song), Buckingham addressed the elephant in the room, namely his stadium-sized self and the small, informal downstairs space at the Queen. He described the two halves of his musical life—his ongoing second act with Fleetwood Mac and his solo appearances—as “the big machine and the small machine”. He explained a bit how they inform each other, how the small machine allowed him to “keep growing and keep taking risks,” and reminded us that we were seeing the small machine. His stage moves, though, both vertically and horizontally, between-song ecstatic screams, gestures toward the audience, and massive vocal projection were all stadium-sized, like he was straining to give us anything less than late ‘70s classic rock maximalism. He kept the dynamics shifting constantly between dramatic and subtle, electric shredding and delicate finger-picking, yelled melismas and soft whispers.
The one nod to the Buckingham Nicks era was a sweet rendition of the instrumental “Stephanie”, followed by the late-era Mac song “Come” and the radically deconstructed “Go Insane”. After a playfully extended “Never Going Back Again” and an especially energetic “Big Love”, by which point Buckingham was dripping with sweat, the show reached its dynamic height during “I’m so Afraid”, as Buckingham took a swelling, extended guitar solo. At one point, trying to pin down just what sonic territory he was meandering into, I scribbled on a page in a notebook and showed it to the friend who had originally played me Tusk. “Kirk Hammett?” That was a stretch. He crossed it out and decisively wrote, “Manuel Göttsching / later Ash Ra.” Exactly! Buckingham spent these long moments channeling a sound right at the intersection of guitar store show-boating and, whether actually informed by it or not, Kraut meditation. And as the speed and intensity of his soloing climaxed, the way he brandished the guitar—extending the neck toward the audience—and expressions of transcendent zone-out became increasingly sexual. I had to shift a bit in my chair and occasionally pretend to check the time, especially as the whole thing terminated in an accelerating upward spanking motion across the guitar strings followed by heavy panting as Buckingham bent over, rested his hands on his knees and let his guitar swing. He then blasted through “Go Your Own Way” and “Trouble,” took one of the most cursory pre-encore walk-offs I’ve ever seen, and drew our collective energy back down to Earth with two songs from the fall 2011 solo album Seeds We Sow.
“You make the small machine very happy,” Buckingham assured us.
Where many pop stars’ later career solo appearances can be filed into two categories, call them, say, the dignified elder statesman move and the embarrassing oldies circuit crawl, Lindsey Buckingham, by virtue of his sheer Lindsey Buckingham-ness, somehow landed in his own third category: playing a balanced, career-spanning set, not grinding an ax of too much new solo material, not leaning too much on obvious crowd pleasers from any one era, indulgent and self-satisfied but also a little self-effacing and very fun to watch. Like he was playing for his own fulfillment, but we were invited to look in. It was an intimate evening that could have only been improved by a rendition of Tusk‘s title track, perhaps featuring Wilmington’s Cab Calloway School of the Arts marching band. Maybe next time.