Attempting to separate a revered bands’s groundbreaking past from its placid present.
By: Jack Stein
The Metro (Chicago, IL)
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News flash: Wilco is Chicago.
For anyone unacquainted with the great American metropolis, one frenetic peal from Nels Cline’s guitar recalls a CTA train speeding over a fragile south side railway. A crack in Jeff Tweedy’s fragile, smoke-scarred voice brings to mind the nauseating humidity emanating from a summer sidewalk. The ghostly, detached chill of their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era percussive work evokes the cold and solemn placidity of Lake Michigan during one of the city’s infamous winters. A recent Midwestern transplant myself by way of the West Coast, I had heard all the records, memorized every tortured lyric to “Radio Cure”, experienced their hometown’s urban sprawl firsthand…but had yet to experience The City and The Band simultaneously.
As such, you can imagine my elation upon finally snagging tickets to the fourth of their five (!) consecutive Chicago shows this winter (on the third try whilst madly hitting “refresh” at 10 am on a Saturday, no less; Wilco fans may be the most rabid this side of My Morning Jacket.) Even more intriguing was the venue: the historic, intimate Metro, a locale on the north side of town that once was the most frequent haunt of Chicago’s prior golden boys, The Smashing Pumpkins, shortly before Being There launched Tweedy and the crew into the stratosphere. Could there be a better way to see this seminal band, on a victory tour in their own city on the penultimate night of their tour? Much like visiting an elderly relative, you never know when your last chance to see a long-running (and occasionally dysfunctional) indie godfather may be. I jumped at the opportunity.
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I waded into the dank, crowded venue in the midst of some forgettable opener’s bluegrass-tinged set; many others had the same bright idea of wedging in close enough to the tiny stage, perhaps hoping for a personalized dig from the ever-sarcastic Tweedy. The crowd demographic was fascinating in itself, a sign of Wilco’s newfound ubiquity. Drunkenly babbling frat bros in Affliction shirts brushed shoulders with middle-aged couples treating this act as a mere curiosity (one bantering duo right next to me only knew the title of one song, the untouchable “I Am Trying to Break your Heart.” One could do worse, I suppose.)
The young, the old, the reserved, the boisterous (an aforementioned Bro dancing his ass off to “Heavy metal drummer” and showering this writer with beer during the chorus); they all came out to play. A strange sight to see for anyone who fell in love with Wilco during their wilder, weirder days, to be sure; how could women my mother’s age possibly be reveling in the band that once closed out an album with 15 minutes of white noise, purportedly intentioned to simulate Tweedy’s insufferable migraines (“Less Than You Think” from experimental summit A Ghost Is Born, which did not make it onto the set list.) In the immortal words of one David Byrne, “how did we get here?”
Ah, but therein lies the paradox of 2011-era Wilco. The once-groundbreaking act that penned, more or less, the American answer to Kid A, that toed the tenuous high wire between experimentalism and song craft as well as anyone since the Beatles, that made its name on breaking down walls (melding alt-country, Television-era punk, and downtempo ambience like it was nobody’s business)…that band, I am sad to report, is no more.
At least, not completely. What became evident that claustrophobic Friday night was that Wilco The Artists, Wilco The Genre-Pushers, have stepped aside for Wilco: the Comfortable Billboard Top 20 Act, at least when it’s convenient for them to embrace their newfound commercial muscle (it’s a sad day when a lifelong Wilco fan realizes that many a young listener is confusing Wilco, Mumford & Sons, and Kings of Leon at this very moment. It’s happening, seriously.) This is not an anomaly; in the last decade we’ve seen countless interesting artists from The Black Keys to Modest Mouse shun artistic boundary-pushing for staid and placid radio fodder. In theory, it was simply Wilco’s turn to grab the money & run. However, things aren’t quite that simple.
No, what made this so frustrating and confounding is that Wilco showed that night that they still could kick serious ass when they want to. At times, Tweedy and crew ripped into older standbys (the devastating “A Shot in the Arm”, complete with unintentionally humorous crowd sing-along; “War on War”; “I’m Always in Love”, the aforementioned career pinnacle “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”) and it felt like 2003 must have for those that saw this band at the peak of their powers. Sadly, though, most of the night these high points, these relics of a past gone by, served as isolated peaks between the numerous valleys they spent noodling aimlessly (“Either Way”, from the admittedly forgettable Sky Blue Sky), plaintively yawping about nothing at all (“Capitol City”, probably the worst song in the Wilco canon), or bantering with the crowd in typical Tweedy fashion.
When the crew did decide to try their hand at some of the more “experimental” fare from new record The Whole Love (“Art of Almost”; the title track), it felt manufactured and plastic, sorely lacking the raw personality that Tweedy imbued his darkest and most trying tracks with during the YHF/A Ghost is Born era. I left the venue that evening pleased, but not blown away; content but not significantly enlightened, even after finally seeing an act I held in such high esteem. I felt like I had just watched a favorite aging athlete inevitably regress from an All-Star performer to an injury-prone role player before my eyes; while you enjoy the performance nonetheless, there lingers the frail hope that the better days could return in an instant, better days that Wilco only teased us with sparingly.
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“The Late Greats”
I spent a cold winter’s night trudging home from the Metro amidst the warm glow of Christmas lights and the soft patter of snowfall, trying to make sense of the past two and a half hours. Two things came to mind: first, a New York article from October declaring Wilco “the new adult contemporary”; given that they had recorded with Feist on their 2009 album and had records displayed at Starbucks across the country, this wasn’t much of a stretch. Second, I recalled a recent piece in The Guardian that essentially equated Wilco to the American Radiohead, noting the similar career arcs of both acts (from difficult to easier to swallow, all while retaining worldwide credibility and heaps of critical acclaim.)
Where that second statement falls flat, however is that (if the underrated, wildly percussive and dub-tinged The King of Limbsby the latter band is any indication) Thom Yorke and the boys clearly have more boundary-testing, jaw-dropping & life-affirming musical moments ahead of them. Whether it was the mid-2000’s departure of multi-instrumentalist (and supposed Lennon to Tweedy’s McCartney) Jay Bennett, the allure of commercial radio play and ticket price-hikes, or simply the inevitable complacency and domestic contentment that sets in with age (Tweedy had a teenage son at the show to whom the crowd sang “Happy Birthday”), Wilco’s well appears exceedingly dry by comparison, leaving this listener forced to separate this iconic band’s beautiful ghosts of sonic excursions past from their stagnant and underwhelming present.