Wilco may be the best rock band working besides Radiohead. The band’s latest release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch 2002) sees Wilco bursting the buttons on its alt-country vest and tracking Radiohead’s near-decade long trail toward the more aurally spacious, and perhaps into the territory of rock greatness.
At the same time, the two bands couldn’t be more different. Whereas Radiohead holds you down (you insolent fools) and injects the medicine (at first against your will but not for long) inducing a drone-like mesmerism, Wilco lures you to the backyard and lets you discover its greatness casually on your own. Radiohead broadcasts its message to the masses over propaganda loudspeakers, while Wilco tells stories around a campfire. Different approaches; but both call for an active listener.
Wilco may not have hit singles, but with Jeff Tweedy at the helm, what it may have is the more elusive asset of longevity. Tweedy’s lyric writing has matured since Wilco’s late 90’s two-album Mermaid Avenue set with Billy Bragg, which saw Tweedy interpreting one of America’s greatest lyricists and national treasures, Woody Guthrie. Guthrie taught Tweedy to take his sweet time, and let his voice evolve on its own. If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an indication of things to come, Tweedy’s voice, like Guthrie’s, could make him an icon of Americana, landing him sold-out gigs consistently at venues like the Beacon Theater or even Carnegie Hall when he’s 75 years old. Time will tell.
Watching Wilco take the stage in Central Park after Sonic Youth (the link—Youth’s Jim O’Rourke mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), one couldn’t help but long for a cigarette. Wilco’s music takes you back to a time when life was more carefree, and melds seamlessly into the summer night as naturally as the brief sunshower and swarming fireflies.
The show, which had all the fixin’s of a backyard summer BBQ, began slowly, both in tempo and in hooking the sold-out crowd. Gaining momentum as the sun set and the band (and audience) settled into the groove of the evening, the backyard BBQ revelry gave way to an intimate-but-festive revival. Dimming light forced an initially distracted audience to focus on a band that was focused from note one. Wilco’s laid-back style is a mirage. On stage, the band functions as one perfect-pitch in-tune polyphonic instrument.
This was most evident when the band launched into a segment of five near-consecutive cuts from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Beginning with the opening acoustic guitar riffs over the distorted electric wah-wah of “War on War”, the band stepped up its performance and appeared visibly elated to be showcasing these refreshingly original tunes.
By the time the mini-Foxtrot set concluded with the catchiest tune on the album, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, the crowd was hooked. “Drummer” is not so much an anthem as a lightly reverent, nostalgia-laden ditty (“I miss the innocence I’ve known: playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”) Yet this didn’t stop Tweedy from treating the song like a Kiss cover, and encouraging the audience to shout it out loud: “Yeah! Whoo!” The crowd wasn’t quite drunk enough (off the music or otherwise) to participate in a full “call-and-response” session, but still everyone was smiling and feeling good by the song’s end.
Amidst what was quickly emerging as a solid performance, it must be noted that the band did not recreate all the sounds from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot organically on stage. While the xylophone on “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” was live, with flawless mallet work by the virtuoso percussionist Glenn Kotche, some sounds were pre-recorded and looped. Granted, a ringing alarm clock and other sounds from the album may be near-impossible to render live, but the same can be said of the music of Radiohead, who manages to recreate each note and noise on stage. (The comparisons at this point, both in watching and in covering the concert, are apologetically inevitable.) In future tours, Wilco has no choice but to similarly comply (there goes Radiohead imposing its will again).
In this modest imperfection, Wilco revealed it may be missing the contributions of ousted long-time guitarist / instrumentalist Jay Bennett. Bennett was the brain behind many of the sounds that made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot more layered and atmospheric, or else merely the scribe of Tweedy’s ingenious vision (the debate still rages). Bennett’s virtuosity (or at least an extra set of hands) may have helped iron out this small imperfection.
Following the Foxtrot interlude, Wilco kept the audience amped by following with a number from the band’s 1996 double-album Being There (a favorite of most Wilco die-hards). “I Got You” is a throwback alt-country anthem, and was ultimately one of the best songs of the night—an indication that, while certainly more mature, the songs of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may be less conducive to live performance. This notion was contradicted however, by Wilco finishing their set the way they finish Foxtrot, with the intimately sublime “Poor Places” melding into the lonesome “Reservations”.
One might expect the music’s intimacy to falter in a large outdoor setting such as this. Indeed, Tweedy’s personal songwriting and down-home twangy delivery grind against the band’s (especially Kotche’s) obvious desire to play this music very loud, arena-rock style. But instead of letting it blast off (which it feels like it may at any moment), Tweedy’s voice keeps it tethered to or even rooted in the earth. This creates a tension, but it also fundamentally defines the band’s sound and what makes it so great. Touching, intimate, resonating tunes that are somehow ready-made for stadiums.
While Radiohead may still have tenure atop the roof of modern rock, Wilco is certainly touching the ceiling. Their approaches may be vastly different, but if Wilco stays the course upward and outward, it may come to share with Radiohead the mantle of “historic.”