PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Every once in a while you go to an ordinary rock ‘n’ roll show—not expecting much—and emerge having witnessed something special, a memorable display of selfless stamina and endurance.
This time though, it didn’t come from the band—although Wilco did put on a magnificent, muscular show. This time, it was born from a pair of parents who spent an entire Wilco show holding their six-year-old daughter in their arms while pogo-ing.
It’s interesting how the presence of one six-year-old changed this entire show, and the way people will remember it. Wilco were in the midst of a mini-tour; a night later they would open for the Stones in Atlanta. The band seemed refreshed and tighter than ever, putting on a performance that people would talk about anyway, even if the little kid hadn’t been there.
With few exceptions, every song seemed perfect. The streetwise lope of “Handshake Drugs” made its way through the crowd like an old friend. Parts of “Muzzle of Bees” seemed especially delicate. “I’m a Wheel”, which I’ve never liked on record, packed extra power and precision with metal-derived riffs. A new song, “Walken”, is a breathtaking display of Zeppelin riffage (if there’s one thing that often gets lost on Wilco’s records it is just how hard the band rocks).
In short, if you’d caught Wilco before, the songs in this show probably packed more visceral power (during the rockin’ songs) and more artsy, chaotic beauty (during the more “refined” moments). All the newly familiar Wilco elements were there: Glenn Kotche’s insane drumming (especially during “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), Nels Cline’s Television-esque stabs of New Wave/experimental guitar and the picture-perfect Pete Townshend windmills. Here, though, as opposed to their last visit to Asheville—a tepid show at the Orange Peel—all of these pieces bristled with new energy.
One always hopes that Tweedy will interact with the crowd more than usual - he’s known for being quite stoic. This night found him, after a rousing version of “The Late Greats”, improvising new lyrics that mentioned opening for the Stones. Regarding the following night’s Stones date, he told the crowd, “Know what we’re doing tomorrow night? We’re opening for the Rolling Stones! If you have seven or eight hundred dollars, you can come.” A beat. “So we’ll see you there.”
For all that, though, we were just on our way to a great Wilco show, one of many that they’ve played. But about halfway through the show came the show’s defining moment, when Jeff Tweedy singled out a six-year-old girl in the crowd.
“Is this your first concert,” he asked.
She shook her head, no. (A post by the girl’s mother on a discussion board later yielded the startling fact that her daughter had seen 30 shows; geez, that’s more than I’ve seen!)
Tweedy, surprised, answered, “Oh, well I’m sorry.” A pause. “Your parents do know that our songs have adult themes, don’t they?” This got a good laugh from the crowd.
The girl’s father told Tweedy that “Hummingbird” is his daughter’s favorite song.
Tweedy agreed to play it (which is an event in itself; Tweedy doesn’t go for that whole shout-out-the-name-of-songs thing). He got a few light catcalls from the crowd when he said that he wasn’t going to play it just yet, adding “It’s probably the only song we have that’s appropriate for you.” More laughter.
So, fair enough. Tweedy was done having a little good-natured give-and-take with a tot, and Wilco returned to the business at hand, launching into a solid rendition of the increasingly anthemic and sobering “Jesus, Etc.”.
Up next, though, came “Hummingbird”, and the place went nuts. During the first section, the crowd lightly sang along, and you’d swear that someone had snuck the Sesame Street singers into the hall—you realize that the bouncy melody, which you’d never given much thought to, really is a catchy piece of work. Heck yeah; this song is right up a six-year-old’s alley well, apart from the lyrics rooted in existential crisis.
About halfway through the song, Tweedy leapt into the crowd, climbed over a half-dozen or so rows and began to serenade the young lady. Standing on a seat, he got about a foot away from the smiling girl and sang to her with a big smile of his own.
What’s more, on the next chorus, the entire crowd jumped in, singing along far louder than anything else they’d sung the entire night (and this was an appreciative crowd who knew their Wilco lyrics). A feeling of goodwill washed over this little girl, now the center of about 2,000 people’s attention. Tweedy grabbed her and held her in one arm during the last part of the song, bouncing and singing at the top of his voice, obviously relishing the girl’s wide-eyed enthusiasm.
Needless to say, the roof nearly came down when the song ended. Tweedy climbs back onstage, saying something to the effect of “Rock on, little sister!”
With about half the show to go, it was then up to Tweedy to remember he had a different kind of audience tonight, and he visibly restrained from dropping several f-bombs. He even seemed to ease off while introducing the screaming call-and-response portion of “Kingpin”, voicing his outrage in the vaguest of terms.
Things finished off with a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”, on which the band, with smiles on their faces, gamely tried to hit high notes just out of their reach.
After the show, as the crowd made its way through the doors, you could see the six-year-old girl on her father’s shoulders, getting high fives and good wishes from every direction. If she wasn’t a fan for life before the show, she is now.