Riffing With Wilco, A Journey: Part 1 [2006 Rewind]

Brian Bartels

PopMatters' Brian Bartels escapes the hustle and bustle of NYC in an essential act of improv.


Riffing With Wilco, A Journey: Part 1 [2006 Rewind]

City: St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA
Venue: Carey Center Gymnasium
Date: 2006-10-20

Don’t Know Nothin' About My Soul

I love the notion of comfort. A good pair of shoes, the right threadcount on my bedsheets and pillowcases, the t-shirt that clings to your body without overqualifying itself -- what these things provide is comfort for those with an otherwise erratic lifestyle. When I don the wrong pair of shoes or sleep on something unfamiliar, my behavior shifts from steady to jagged in an attempt to work itself back into the routine.

A line I've been using when people ask me how things are going is, "Just playing jazz." Now, I don’t actually play jazz -- or even listen to it religiously -- but I do believe in improvising on the standards. After all, the same old doesn’t feel so similar when radicalism intervenes. * * *

Travel from New York City to Latrobe offers more difficulty than I'd expected. A train ride places me in JFK International, early morning. Overcast, late-October skies have inspired a factory like sentiment from both the check-in passengers and the airport staff: everyone's just worked the graveyard shift; no one speaks clearly; and their weary eyes are washing over.

It hits me: I am a writer on a new road, on a path I'm unsure Kerouac or Kesey or any other famous K writer ever had to walk. I'm a techno traveler. I booked this flight online, registered with a car-rental company, and set up hotel accommodations, all by pressing a button. I have an e-ticket, I don't have to wait in the grueling airport check-ins, and I can get my boarding pass without speaking a word to anyone. All I have to worry about is the security check-point.

West is the direction: Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where Rolling Rock is brewed. I'm taking this trip to see one of America's most captivating acts at the Carey Center Gymnasium at St. Vincent College.

Wilco are musician's musicians, guys willing to shoot the breeze. They're self-effacing and humble one second, assertive, soulful, and contemplative the next. In the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, filmmaker Sam Jones offered a behind-the-scenes look as the band recorded an album, dealt with the business struggles, and navigated the at-times-uncomfortable collaboration of creative-minded people. The film showed a band bursting with potential, and creativity. Still, even with the album and film's success, Wilco remain the biggest band in America to elude mainstream audiences.

When I told my friend I was going to Pennsylvania to see the band, he responded with understanding. "The British band. They're good."

I told him they're from Chicago.

"Same thing.”

Practice What You Preach

Fifty miles east of Pittsburgh, green and gold school colors declare the Catholic pride of St. Vincent College, a small institution nestled away from Route 30. The "Bearcats" campus bustles with a noticeable mix of pride and ambition. The show is taking place in the school's basketball gymnasium, a perfect venue for Tweedy and Co. to brag their abilities on a cold and rainy Friday night.

Banners behind the stage celebrate the men's basketball team, and the gymnasium holds a modest 1,000 bodies spread on the court and in the bleachers. It reminds me of my hometown's gymnasium, a kind of down-to-earth assembly hall that wears its heart on its sleeve.

As I look around, I think about my cell phone for a second. If I were still in New York, I'd have the luxury of contacting people and meeting them in no time. Here in Latrobe, with its "middle-of-nowhere" vibe, I can blend in with the wallpaper, making hand puppets with the stage lights and chatting with someone who lives down the road. It's a reminder that, while I can get wherever I want to be with the help of technology, nothing compares with the physical experience of being front and center, watching a band physically create art.

And, physically, Wilco are large. A six-piece rock outfit, they could form a men's pickup basketball team in any night league. So it's appropriate that the show takes place on the court. * * *

New York roots rockers Phonograph open the show. Phil, the band's newest member, hails from Lost Nation, Iowa, a small town boasting only three-hundred inhabitants. He moved to New York less than three months ago, not knowing many people. Now he's opening for Wilco.

Ironically, we bond over basketball, that Midwestern pride thing coming out of our pores as we talk about our New York lives, holding on to home like it's a bird in our hands, like it’s fine China or a gift from the center of your chest you want to share with everyone. (He also reminds me of a good drinking buddy from home, proof that we as people ultimately collide with some version of ourselves in the company we keep.)

Phonograph gives the unassuming audience a tight forty-five minute set, held together by Dave Burnett's unquenchable percussion and the gravitational earpull of Abe Seiferth's lead guitar. Phonograph recently signed with Austin’s Arclight Records and are pleased to announce the release of their first album early next year. I reviewed this band less than six months ago, and, as impressed as I was with their New York set, this gig dwarfs it.

That's not to say that their show comes without obstacles. Matt Welsh, a rust-covered singer/songwriter with a low country vocal register (in short, Tom Petty with more conviction) is heckled by a fresh-faced youth in the front row early in the show. As he tells me later, "I could hear the kid saying something about Wilco in our second song." The kid was singing lyrics from a signature Wilco tune during the band's performance.

But, things were quick to improve: "By our sixth song, he was bobbing his head to the beat."

By Phonograph’s fourth song –- with bassist John Davis packing layer upon layer or rolling rhythm –- they have everyone in the gym riding their wave all the way to the end of America. For Phonograph, it’s a helluva thing to open for Wilco, a band at the top of the alt-country genre, and they amplified quintessential support for the main event. It’s invigorating to think about Phonograph’s potential right now, and one feels lucky to hear them. It’s the way others must have felt discovering a band like Wilco before the rest of the world caught the buzz, holding them in the palm of your hand like a secret, like you somehow want to tell everyone without spilling the contents.

Phonograph offer listeners rough rock when they strike their first chord, but by the time they finish their set, the sounds are like crystallized diamonds. Shine on, crazies. Shine on. Click here to read part two: Bartels casts his critical eye on the main event.

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