[15 March 2005]

By Andrew Watson


These days, everybody gives Jeff Tweedy the benefit of the doubt. Critics can’t stop slobbering and the fans (of which there are many, many more than there used to be) refer to his songs with awestruck reverence. Even the freaking academy recognizes him—two Grammys?!

It seems everyone loves Tweedy—everyone but my roommate, Bob.

Bob went with me to see Wilco (Tweedy’s band) in Kalamazoo and Bob is pissed. According to Bob, Tweedy’s become too much of a “Rock Star.” According to Bob, Wilco might as well change the name of the band to Jeff Tweedy and the Wilco Players.

This reaction is to be expected whenever a band blows up and outgrows its cult audience. When a group fiddles with their original lineup or sound, the knee-jerk response is to say that they are abandoning their ideals, that they’re being untrue to themselves in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.

Sometimes these critics are even right. But in the case of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, it’s a load of crap.

Wilco is bigger than Tweedy—always has been. In the early, stripped down days, the days of Coomer, Bennett, and Bach, the band was designed to serve the songs, which were far less complex. Music, like any artistic medium, is sustained through change; the ability for an artist to grow and adjust to meet the current climate will always separate the dabblers from the maestros. Tweedy’s songs, like his persona, have changed over the years. He demands more of himself and his art, and thus demands more out of his bandmates. Does that automatically make him a dick?

Opening with the dark, sinister “Via Chicago” from their 1999 acid-pop opus Summerteeth, Wilco treated the sold out K-zoo crowd to two-plus hours of shifting, swirling sound. The new six-man lineup is without question the band’s most accomplished and flexible to date, able to crank out fire at will or just lay down gently.

When it was announced last year that Wilco would be bringing guitarist Nels Cline into the fold, those in the know took notice and got excited. Cline is a legendary figure in the Chicago underground jazz scene—his work with the Nels Cline Trio, Geraldine Fibbers, Mike Watt, etc. etc. has been an unquestionable influence on the younger, post-rock guitar contingency. He brings years and years of nuance and texture to Wilco’s songs, not to mention an unforgettable live presence. From his transposition of the viola solo in “Hummingbird” to his rendering of the cranky solo that closes “Muzzle of Bees” to the lap-steel guitar he sat down with during “Jesus etc.”, the night was loaded with unforgettable Cline moments. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get bored with the traveling and touring circus too soon—he’s an outstanding addition to the group.

As expected, the main set consisted mostly of songs from the band’s last two records, A Ghost is Born and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Many of the evening’s best offerings, however, came courtesy of their older material or, stranger even still, a couple choice cover songs.

Another Summerteeth track, “I’m Always in Love”, made a rare live appearance. With not one but two keyboardists in tow, the song’s circular synth patterns and piano figures seemed thicker and more pronounced than usual.

“Remember the Mountain Bed”, a somber, acoustic selection off the Mermaid Avenue sessions, celebrated Tweedy’s greatest strength—his voice. His smoked-out, croaking baritone is the centerpiece of every single Wilco song—the one thread that ties all of their disparate material together. Say what you want about the guy—capitalist, back-stabber, megalomaniac—he’s got a killer rock and roll voice.

The band closed the set with “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, an unassuming, Krautrock-inspired dirge that, coincidentally, includes a friendly nod to the loveliness of Michigan, particularly our many miles of gorgeous shoreline.

Drummer Glen Kotche used this opportunity (and many others, I assure you) to display his greatest strength. Considering the ferociousness of his playing on this number and the multi-tasking percussion lesson he gave during “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” there was nothing left to prove. The man is a sensation.

The first encore was the YHF showcase. Cline absolutely murdered the guitar break during “I’m the Man Who Loves You”. There was a brief, chilly attempt at the glorious “Poor Places” before Kotche threw every one of his eight arms into a sensational “Heavy Metal Drummer”. An extra-fast, extra-punky version of “I’m a Wheel” came soon after, Cline and Tweedy racing through the scales with a clean confidence. “Kingpin”, followed that, a terrific swamp-funk rocker off Being There (the sole representative from that fine album). By the end of the “song” (really more of a backdrop) the entire audience (not to mention the band) was screaming synchronized nonsense and making intentionally ugly faces at each other.

Oh, and laughing. During a moment like that it’s easy to forget what’s supposed to be “cool” and what’s supposed to be “lame” or what might separate good art from something more derivative. In moments like that when you’re screaming your head off, your face twisted into a mask of drunken horror and a bass drum pounding beats into your chest, all that trivial posturing and theorizing vanishes.

The band closed the second encore, the show, and the tour with two cover songs, which, according to the nutball next to me who’s seen the band some 40 times, is extremely rare behavior.

The first, a rollicking version of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”, appeased the aging hippie quotient and led to one of those predictable yet enjoyable big room sing-alongs. The second, more noteworthy choice was a surprisingly heartfelt reading of Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s “Comment (If Men Be Not Brothers)”, lovingly dedicated to tour openers The Detholtz, an atypical Christian rock band (meaning they’re actually good) from Chicago.

With the houselights on, both bands onstage singing, and the crowd joining in eagerly (they printed the lyrics on the big screen for those of us who lack a background in old funk classics) the show reached a triumphant, moving conclusion that seemed rooted in the concept of brotherly love and acceptance.

This from the stonehearted bastard who threw Jay Bennett out in the cold?

Hmmm… Maybe Jeff Tweedy knows what he’s doing after all.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/wilco-050226/