In May of 1997, when Wilco came to Portland, I walked out after three songs. I could tell from the opening tune, the stinging, eight-verse screamer “Misunderstood”, that Jeff Tweedy wanted out of his alt-country prison. But I wasn’t sold. Touring on Being There, the band’s second record, Wilco was enjoying—and maybe even despising—the overeager praise of critics and promoters who introduced them as “the best band in America”.
Not the best band in America. Not yet.
One-half of Uncle Tupelo’s defunct songwriting team, Jeff Tweedy had a lot to prove. Jay Farrar had broken up Uncle Tupelo, a beloved, under-the-radar band that performed country-punk rock originals next to Ramones covers and Carter Family tunes, and Farrar seemed likely to inherit Uncle Tupelo’s “alt-country” throne. His presence in the band far outshined Tweedy’s, who took the position of sideman, second guitar, the George Harrison who wrote a good tune now and again.
With Wilco, a vehicle for Tweedy’s original compositions, this sideman hesitated to address life as he now knew it—a life left empty by the demise of the only true collaboration he’d ever known (Farrar and Tweedy were born in the same Illinois hospital, went to the same high school, etc.). Thus, Wilco’s first record, A.M. rang hollow, impersonal, cavalier, and soulless.
Maybe it was a self-consciousness that accompanied being forcibly thrust front-and-center. Maybe the spotlight was on Jeff Tweedy prematurely.
Farrar’s new band, Son Volt, didn’t have the raw anger and damage of Tweedy/Farrar compositions, but their first record, Trace, did have heart. Standing next to it, Wilco’s A.M. sounded like a band shamelessly grasping for radio play.
So clearly, when Uncle Tupelo split, I sided with Jay Farrar.
Still, Being There grew on me over time and Summerteeth scratched my Brian Wilson itch, promising interesting times ahead. Meanwhile, Son Volt’s first record ended up being their only recording I could love.
For whatever reason, I refused to give Wilco another chance as a live act. That is, until 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stabbed me in the heart and opening my eyes wide. Leave it to Wilco to write a 9/11 record, maybe the only one that really mattered, before 9/11 even happened.
So tonight, when Tweedy steps up to the mic in Portland, Oregon (playing a venue which by now Wilco knows intimately—the Roseland Theater, home to Wilco shows four out of the last five years), recognition of the first lines of YHF‘s “Ashes of American Flags” rolls through the crowd and I am not alone as relief turns into yelling as the song climaxes:
I would like to salute
The ashes of American flags
And all the fallen leaves
Filling up shopping bags
A final verse perfectly resonant. We are, after all, sunk in post-election darkness, resigned to another four years of what looks an awful lot like fascism, wrestling with what it means to be American, wrestling with ourselves.
It’s classic Tweedy: an opening verse skimming the surface (“I could spend three dollars and 63 cents/ On Diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes”), a second verse muttering and cursing (“I wonder why we listen to poets/ When nobody gives a fuck”), and a bridge masking as a chorus in a line transcendent but seemingly disconnected from the rest of the song: “I know I would die if I could come back new”.
The next song is just as relevant. “Ashes” transitions effortlessly into “War on War”, a prescient pop song from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with a refrain that both warns the enemy and reminds the singer: “You’re gonna lose/ You have to lose/ You have to learn how to die.”
The crowd is transfixed. The video display and light show together bathe the place in blue. Between songs, Tweedy reminds us of his politics. “This one’s dedicated to people who think stem cell research is worse than dropping bombs,” he says over the opening chords to “Theologians” from the new record, A Ghost is Born.
This isn’t the same Wilco that toured on Being There; it’s not the same Wilco that recorded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Other than Tweedy, the only original member still around is bassist John Stirratt. Adding uber-guitarist Nels Cline on noise guitar, removing Jay Bennett from the mix, adding free-jazz drummer Glenn Kotche—Wilco is now a band with chops, a band integrating complex technology into a mix born from a purist’s love of Gibson acoustic guitars and the sound of brushes on snare drums.
Much like Radiohead, Wilco is reckoning with what it means to be alive, to be musicians, to be awake as a rock band in the 21st century.
At Portland shows in 1996 and 1997, Wilco leaned on Uncle Tupelo songs (“Gun” and “The Long Cut”) and covers (The Replacements, Neil Young, David Bowie) to fill out their set and keep the audience engaged. Tonight, 18 out of 24 songs are from Wilco’s last two records. A Ghost is Born gets most of the attention; it’s a difficult album to love. Gone are the pop songs with singable choruses; Tweedy is indulging himself with twisting, wrecked guitar solos that can alienate even the most rabid Wilco fan.
Tweedy doesn’t need to cover an Uncle Tupelo song (though it would no doubt be welcomed) or pay homage to his heroes—although the show ends with a phenomenal cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, cowbell and all—to win the crowd over to his newest vision of what it means to love rock ‘n’ roll.
Sure, if you left Wilco behind in the mid-‘90s and returned to them tonight for a reintroduction, the band might be unrecognizable. But considering what’s happened to America in the past few years and considering that if Wilco is anything, they are a truly American band, a keen listener can’t help but notice Jeff Tweedy’s old signature inside the sonic maelstrom that is today’s Wilco. It’s all there: the sensitive heart, the stream-of-consciousness lyrical leaps, that raging anti-war stance (found in Uncle Tupelo covers like CCR’s “Effigy” and Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Wanna Destroy You”).
In 1997 critics said that Wilco was the greatest band in America. The praise was premature. In 2004 there is no doubt: Wilco defines what it means to be a 21st century American band. No one else even compares.