In the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue - The Complete Sessions, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora describes her response to first reading the lyrics to the many songs her folk-icon father had written, yet never released, in the 1940s and 1950s. “I had just discovered that my father had a bad crush on Ingrid Bergman and dreamed of getting her pregnant, that he was a proud lush and a comfortable luster, that he believed in flying saucers, that he was homesick for California, that he even knew who Joe DiMaggio was let alone wrote a song about him.” The sweep and diversity of the ideas Guthrie explored in those songs is startling. Those and other Guthrie songs finally reached an audience when Wilco put music to them and recorded them with Billy Bragg.
Several of the songs were featured Friday night, July 27, at the Newport Folk Festival where Wilco headlined the evening lineup. It’s hard to imagine a better venue to showcase the songs of the folk prophet Guthrie, who would’ve turned 100 years old this month, than the park at Newport. And since it’s Newport, why not a genre-bending band like Wilco to play them? Like Newport legend Bob Dylan in the sixties, Wilco’s founder Jeff Tweedy refuses to stick to the musical style that first got him noticed and instead keeps moving forward in different musical directions. Tweedy has both confounded and attracted fans while recording diverse albums of cross-pollinated songs reflecting alt country, folk, pop, rock, prog, and avant-garde influences. It seems even he doesn’t know what he wants to be. All of these influences were on display at Newport and, while it’s hard to classify the band, it’s easy to love their live shows.
Wilco likes to play baseball fields and outdoor festivals in the summer. Maybe it’s just my luck but I’ve enjoyed five of these shows and been rained on four times. New England has had beautiful, dry weather for most of the summer but I guess since this is Wilco, the rains had to follow the band much like their devoted fans do. Fortunately, the rain started an hour before they were set to take the stage and had all but ended by the time Blitzen Trapper completed an energetic opening set. We pulled off our ponchos, closed our umbrellas, and crowded toward the front of the stage.
The evening started with a technical glitch—they only one of the night. The band opened with Guthrie’s “Christ for President” and for the first few lines, you couldn’t hear Jeff’s voice. Eventually someone brought up the mic and Jeff finished Woody’s plea for a president who could truly transcend politics. Maybe politics were divisive back then, too, but it’s hard to see how even Jesus could turn a red state blue or a blue state red these days.
Next came “Art of Almost,” the opening track from Wilco’s 2011 release The Whole Love. Though the skies were clear now, this song signaled that we were about to experience the true force of nature that is the Wilco sound. The six musicians that make up the band now can fill even an outdoor venue with a cacophony of sound that has to be heard to be believed. It’s loud but not noisy because there is always one of them whose instrument pierces through the sound and paints a melody or a rhythm on the wall of sound like subway art. In “Art of Almost” the drummer, Glenn Kotche, bangs out a staccato off-beat drum pattern throughout and the lead line by guitarist Nels Cline winds in and out. Wilco may have started as an alt country band but this was more Mothers of Invention than Mother Maybelle Carter. I suppose if Pete Seeger were there he may have tried to take an axe to the power cables as legend has it he tried to do to Dylan almost half a century ago, but I didn’t see anyone in the audience complaining that the sound wasn’t sufficiently folky.
After another cut from The Whole Love the band started sampling their extensive catalogue, starting with “Poor Places” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Nels Cline served up some beautiful slide sounds on some odd-looking lap guitar and Kotche was drumming with maracas at one point. This was a gentle, soothing acoustic break from the preceding wall of sound.
Next came a reborn “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. Maybe it’s my age but the earlier version of this song—an eight minute barrage of krautrock—was always my least favorite part of a Wilco show. But the band has reimagined it as an acoustic fingerpicked gem of a song much more suited to Newport. It was delicate and intricate and if toning it down disappointed some fans—well, Wilco has never worried about that anyway.
Tweedy was not very talkative but he did speak briefly here, referring to the opening song when his mic wasn’t working. The people in front were making hand signals for him to bring it up. But, he pointed out, when he is singing and strumming he has no control over the sound levels. He’s helpless. “I’m helpless in many ways,” he quipped.
After that brief chat, the band got back to business with “Impossible Germany”. Cline, who seems to be able to invoke almost any guitar style, channels a Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on this song that would be right at home on a Steely Dan album in the seventies. Who knew there were so many notes up and down that guitar neck? While Cline’s solo was in full bloom, Tweedy beamed at him with a satisfied smile. He must have seen Cline play this song 500 times by now but still seems as amazed as we are at what he can do. You almost have sit back, let your jaw drop open and just enjoy it—which is what Tweedy did for a time, before ripping off some answering lead lines of his own.
“Born Alone” was next. This song is pop candy from the new album but could have been on 1999’s “Summerteeth”. The lights really started dong their job now—amplifying the mood of the songs—as the sun was down and the venue got dark. Once it got dark the sound seemed to envelop us as the boats and water around us faded out of sight. It’s a shame the photographers are only allowed to shoot the first three songs down in front of the stage because there is much more to see after dark.
“Born Alone” was followed by “Not for the Season”, from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era, which featured a dramatic interplay of guitars. It’s been around long enough to be familiar to many fans, so you could hear the crowd singing along in unison, a treat at every Wilco show. “Candy left over from Halloween, the Unified Theory of Everything…”
“Open Mind” is a gem from The Whole Love and features Cline on slide guitar. This is straight alt country, mournful and folky and right at home at Newport. The stage was lighted blue, which matched the mood of the music.
It was a treat to be taking all this in while feeling the ocean breeze, seeing seagulls soaring overhead, watching the crowd move in unison and sing along to the familiar lines. The band tries a bit of everything and the crowd eats up every bit of it. The whole love.
If you’ve seen a Wilco show recently, you know that “Handshake Drugs” is both a staple and a high point. It’s sort of the type-example of a Wilco song: folky, strumming at the start, Tweedy’s voice with a Beatlesque tone, evocative but vague lyrics, jabbing lead guitar lines, drums that carry the song but don’t dominate, and then an explosive, pulsing wall of noise to close. This was one highlight in a show that had no lowlights. If you’ve never heard the live version then you should pick up “Kicking Television” and play it—loud—with 6,000 of your friends.
There were a half dozen more songs and I could describe each one but by now I’ve either convinced you to go to a Wilco show or not. So I’ll jump to the end of the opening set. The band exited while Cline held his guitar over his head and swirled it around and coaxed some whining, spinning sounds out of it like a mad alchemist. Finally, he left the stage, too.
When the band returned they had two guests: Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody’s granddaughter, and her husband, Johnny Irion. The expanded troupe treated us to the sweetest rendition of Woody’s “California Stars” that I’ve heard, with the couple sharing a mic and trading verses with Tweedy. Their smiles were wide and everyone looked to be having a great time, as it should be at a birthday party. The song is a perfect one for playing late in a show because it’s a simple three-chord song with a lot of open space for musicians to wander. First Cline traced the melody with his Fender guitar and later Pat Sansone banged away on a keyboard that sounded like a piano to me.
Tweedy asked Sarah and Irion to stay for one more song and they all played a sublime version of “Airline to Heaven”. If I gush too much about the slide guitar sounds from Cline that would be unfair to Tweedy, who sang it beautifully and carried it on his acoustic guitar.
There was more music, another exit, a second return, and then, to bookend the show which opened with Woody’s “Christ for President”, the band ended with “Hoodoo Voodoo” from the first Mermaid Avenue album. Tweedy’s face contorted to the nonsensical lyrics—not in pain but in a bemused way—and the band squeezed the last bit of sound and energy out of their instruments. A roadie even bounced up on the stage, stripped off his shirt, and banged a cowbell madly until the show ended. Since we’d been through a tour of so many musical styles, it would have been more appropriate for him to bang on a kitchen sink.