The Recher Theater was packed like a can of volatile trick snakes, tech vests rubbing against flannel and denim in a precarious, palpable friction. Makes one wonder what brought them all to see an un-radio friendly band like Wilco on a tornado-ravaged Sunday in Maryland. Were they curious wanderers, drawn in by the media’s recent obsession with the band’s latest, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Were they instead representatives of the band’s “huge, loyal fan base” that “they” (see: the media) say is quietly rampant? Were they friends of friends who were one of the above, or somewhere malleably in between? Intent aside, the audience was indeed a mixed bag on the surface: twenty-something trendies and pre-meds, beautiful, stoned, and casually elitist; NASCAR Dwights and Wendys out for a night of almost-country, Budweisers in tow; non-threatening, loutish, semi-alcoholic well-wishers and fist-pumpers. And why not? Wilco, at least for the paranoid, self-reflective present, is the band America wishes existed, somewhere in an alley next to an all-night Laundromat or silo, whiling away late into the night playing songs that breathe relief like the release of long pent-up sneeze.
In truth, hearing the songs from Foxtrot that can so feasibly comfort post-attack America is like waking from an anesthesia-induced fog after a life-saving surgery. And fulfilling their coronation, the band owned the stage, playing like it was the soundtrack to a victory parade. Dressed like an awkward teenage schlep at his National Honor Society induction dinner, singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy led the reconfigured Wilco (new drummer Glenn Kotche, new keyboard player Leroy Bach, and old-reliable bassist John Stirratt) into a hypnotizing “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, the boozy lead track from the new album. Whether because of Internet stream and MP3s from the album’s early days, or from having picked it up legally upon its release the previous Tuesday (for the record’s bastardized etiology, see: any music-related publication from the last three months), the audience, for the most part, knew the songs and was immediately and rabidly receptive to them. The initial one-two-three-four punch, which also included “War on War”, “Kamera”, and “Radio Cure” following the opener, led to wild hooting and praise, the former drawing fists and beer pounding into the air, the latter an eager, stunned silence, punctuated by awed applause and stymied gawking.
Foxtrot would be the word of the night, as the band played all but one of its tunes (“Poor Places”), while conservatively sampling bits of their other endeavors. Dipping briefly into 1999’s lush pop masterpiece, Summerteeth, Team Tweedy breezed through the piano-prog “A Shot in the Arm” and “She’s a Jar”, in which scattered members of the drunken mass dutifully whistled in Tweedy’s harmonica fills before he could oblige in time with his instrument. Being There (“Why Would You Wanna Live?” in the first set, “Red Eyed and Blue”, “I Got You”, and “Outtasite [Outtamind]” to emphatically close the second set) and the Mermaid Avenue (“Hesitating Beauty” and the sing-along “California Stars”) songs made brief appearances, though the debut A.M. was ignored, as the band seems to further divorce itself from its common law marriage to alt.country.
And it was seven songs into the first set before Tweedy finally spoke, acknowledging the critical acclaim that’s been following him and the audience praise in front of him. He may not talk much, but oh, what a good talker. After “Ashes of American Flags” descended into a clunky feedback explosion, the reluctant leader spoke. “Our new record is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” he sheepishly whimpered. “Thanks for listening. It sounds like people are listening.”
More like hanging on every crackled vocal. The set closed with the haunting “Reservations”, a devolution of sound and emotion that left the audience appropriately motionless. But two thorough encores, highlighted by a swarthy “Jesus, etc.” and the raucous, almost euphoric brawl inducing trio of Being There songs left the onlookers brash and greedy, stomping and clamoring for more music, more aggressively than any crowd I’ve ever heard. They were only to be left standing with reddened, numb hands and sleeping feet while the house music came on.
Wilco left the capacity plus crowd blood thirsty for more, never allowing them enough time to digest what they already had: a captivating, bone-shifting performance. Whether or not they are the unifying voice of America is debatable, essentially as unanswerable as that idea is indefinable. Ask 11 people and you’ll get 13 different answers and two Son Volt bootlegs. But one thing was for certain in this packed room: they were the unifying force here, defining the moment, bringing together the roars of giddy parasites looking for a meaningful, passionate diversion. Obsession? It’s not strong enough a word. And there hasn’t been an addiction this justified since smoking was healthy.