When Uncle Tupelo split, I sided with Jay Farrar. Weird right?
I would like to saluteA 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.
The ashes of American flags
And all the fallen leaves
Filling up shopping bags