There’s a scoreboard above the stage, but I ain’t keeping score.
Wilco start their set on St. Vincent College’s basketball court with an orchestral crescendo, lush emerald lights illuminating the stage as the band files in. Tweedy picks up his guitar with his sleeves already rolled up. The band is ready to ignite the spark.
I stay near the sound board, confident that this location offers the ideal mix in a difficult place to hone acoustics, and the sound is great. The crowd is a healthy combination of college kids and the school’s 40-something neighbors. Two young men next to me keep their hooded sweatshirts on, and, when “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” arrives, they offer a serious interpretation of a Dave Matthews dance-along, juking their shoulders while the song cascades into frenetic joy.
Each song adds another dimension to Wilco’s firepower. Songs are used to break everything down and build them up again. Pat Sansone bullies the keyboards while Nels Cline waits in the shadows; Stirratt adopts a groove and Tweedy gains excited pauses in between lyrics, dancing around to do something until it’s time for the next poem.
Early songs are from Wilco’s last album, A Ghost Is Born, and lead guitarist Cline wastes no time in proving himself to the crowd. Cline never stops growing onstage. His physical register and maturity conditions the audience’s attention. He plays with a fiery tightness that never overextends itself—everything is packaged to make unwrapping the gift that much more pleasant.
Meanwhile, Glenn Kotchke’s propulsive drumming elevates “Handshake Drugs”, which is capped by a psychedelic Cline-and-Tweedy guitar shower. As displayed in “At Least That’s What You Said”, Kotchke’s rhythmic percussions nicely complement the song’s structure.
The band’s stage presentation fills the gaps nicely. Though Tweedy is front and center, the cast around him is responsible for integral parts of the production. Bassist John Stirratt looks like he enjoys every note he plays, while Sansone’s multi-instrumentalist subtleties invoke a studied grace that thickens the gravy. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgenson’s quiet stage presence lets the crowd know that silence speaks volumes, especially when you’re layering note upon note.
New songs pepper the setlist. “Impossible Germany” starts with a Steely Dan-esque intro that unfolds into Thin Lizzy territory, with an extended Cline guitar solo that catches the band enjoying themselves—a rare treat that crowds always appreciate. That song ends, and “Poor Places” kicks in with frogs ribbiting and crickets chirping as comets paint the stratosphere. The backdrop displays what could be cave-like stalagmites or, in my demonic imagination, a post-apocalyptic forest damaged by fires—naked defenseless trees inhabiting the song’s sentiment.
A 21-year-old kid smacks me on the shoulder at the end of the song. “Hey man, you writing down the songs? What’d they play so far?” When I realize I ‘m not going to get out of this without talking to the kid, I try explaining to him that I…
“I made it through hell to get here tonight, man,” he says, cutting me off. “Fuck. You know. Our car broke down and we had to walk. Shit. Then my buddy puked out the window.” The good-natured fella isn’t leaving my side anytime soon, so I tell him what the band has played thusfar. “Thanks, man. You’re a good friend,” he says, half-hugging me, his breath a blend of booze and vomit.
When Tweedy finally says “hi” to the crowd, it’s with an air of anxiety. His banter remains jovial, but in ways that inevitably allow some fan to get under his skin. Some start shouting song requests (a no-no) which encourages everyone to shout together. It’s frustrating.
“I guess I’m… the band’s… front man,” Tweedy says. “What is that? I’m not a… leading man. No. Maybe. Maybe I’m, I’m Nels Cline’s leading man.”
His words during the next audience interaction, fueled by more obnoxious fans belting out songs requests, refer to the “Tweedy Slugs-Fan” incident that took place four days earlier: “By the way,” Tweedy says after the anti-geopolitical song “War on War”, “I’m not going to punch you in the face. Really. You can kiss me.”
You can YouTube footage (and I can use YouTube as a verb now) of that show in Springfield, Missouri, where a fan jumped onstage during “Airline to Heaven”, and tried to kiss him on the cheek. Tweedy wheeled around and socked him for invading his space. Not the ideal reaction, but Tweedy was merely defending unknown territory, something anyone can understand.
It is inside that unknown that he resides when conversing with fans between songs, from the acknowledgement of mistakes (“One of my amps is dead. If both my amps were working, your ears would be bleeding. Ah, baloney! What? Whatever.”), to the aforementioned reference (“Just remember, you get what you give”). Near the end, Tweedy’s genuine playfulness gets the frowning security guards to join in with the rest of the audience for “Kingpin”. Tweedy tries his best to make everyone in the place enjoy themselves: “I see you checking your watch, buddy. Don’t worry. It’s almost over. We’ll get you to scream with us once and then we can all go home.”
It is a treat for someone from New York City to see a band of this magnitude playing in a setting like this, one so reminiscent of gymnasiums I’ve occupied. Granted, standing on the floor isn’t great for the back, but it does wonders for the ears. People sitting in the bleachers are standing by the end of the show, clapping along to the beats, engulfed as the band’s double encore proves a point by prohibiting an early Friday tuck-in. The night is very much alive with music. Though it’s Wilco’s last night on this “Roller coaster ride of a tour”, as Tweedy calls it, they give the Pennsylvania crowd everything they’ve got.
After the show, everyone clears out except thirty people leaning up to the stage, waiting for something—a sound, a lark, a bell to ring, a ball to drop, lightning, thunder, whip crack, organ donor, prairie wind, triangles, more tambourine and maracas, snare drum, bass pedal, feedback, waiting for more juice, more noise, primal chord progression, wearing bankrupt necks. We’re all still holding our breath on a late Friday night.