22 May 2012: Red Rocks Amphitheater Morrison, CO
If Red Rocks is known for one thing aside from its breathtaking scenery, it’s the unparalleled sound quality. Every band that broadcasts their music from Stage Rock up through the two giant monoliths that form the natural amphitheater ends up sounding nearly perfect, as if George Martin himself mixed and mastered every song on the spot. But somehow, Wilco’s performance on the first of two nights at Red Rocks did not live up to that reputation. Jeff Tweedy’s guitar and vocals were muffled and unclear and lead guitarist Nels Cline’s fierce guitar licks were reduced to merely background notes for the majority of the show.
This, of course, is being picky. We who have Red Rocks as our backyard venue are spoiled and are accustomed to studio quality sound in the open-air venue. It does, however, prove that nobody is perfect—not even Wilco who is highly regarded as one of the more innovative, energetic, and particular bands playing today.
But that’s not to say that the band themselves didn’t play well or that they didn’t savor every note. Nor is it to say that the audience didn’t sink in deeper with every transition or explode at every crescendo. They did, and we did. And that proves why Wilco is quite possibly the best band around—an ability to turn on a dime from a show lacking in energy to one brimming with dynamism.
It started slowly. Tweedy plucked guitar strings and sang quietly on “One Sunday Morning”, instantly quieting the riled up crowd. From there it was mostly songs from their two most recent albums—2011’s The Whole Love and 2007’s Sky Blue Sky—including “Art of Almost”, “I Might”, “Side with the Seeds” and “Impossible Germany”. Even though these songs each have a muted energy of their own, it was not enough to overcome the sound deficiencies. “Art of Almost” had a brief exception during the thunderous outro, as Cline possibly gave himself a hernia with his furious strumming. Still, the audience listened intently but was not moved enough to rock.
I’m not sure if Tweedy and the gang noticed the sound problems and the lack of energy or if it was part of their plan all along, but just about halfway through the set they turned it up—loud—and switched gears into a straight shot of their most anthemic rockers. It started with “Handshake Drugs” and, one song later, “I Must Be High”, which segued into “I’m Always in Love”. Then, as if a switch was flicked, “Heavy Metal Drummer” literally ran chills through the entire place. You could feel it. It was a palpable joint energy and every one sang along.
All too soon though, the set ended as “Dawned on Me” and “A Shot in the Arm” carried the same energy. They’d only been playing for a little more than an hour and it was hard to believe they could be done. It seemed like the meat of the set was just getting going, but they walked off stage.
Of course, there was an encore planned. Openers The Punch Brothers joined Wilco on “California Stars” from the Mermaid Avenue album they recorded with Billy Bragg. It was one of those moments that happens often at Red Rocks: when the attention of the entire crowd is focused on the stage and we are all experiencing the same feeling together—a feeling that can only be created by sharing in the music. And though it happens often at this venue, it is never less meaningful than the time before or the time after. The combined efforts on the shuffling jam were no different.
But then again, though it still felt early, Wilco walked off stage. Much of the crowd cleared out before looking to the stage and realizing that the house lights weren’t turned on, and it soon became clear that a second encore was in the works. After a couple of minutes, the full band returned to the stage and ripped through an additional four songs—including “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and “Hoodoo Voodoo”, also from Mermaid Avenue.
Then the band left for a final time. Tweedy thanked the crowd, the house lights went on, and Red Rocks cleared itself of its audience. And though the show started off slowly, the ending made it all worthwhile. As expected, Wilco failed to disappoint.