No one expects to be standing outside on January 31st in just a sweater, but even after the sun had set, it was forty-five degrees with relatively no wind as I stood outside College Street Music Hall waiting for the doors to open. I love talking up my hometown venue, less than a year old and already the location of many great concerts, but tonight was special. Tonight, Manic Productions brought Wilco.
Those that know me know I love Wilco. Seeing them live has become a nearly once a year excursion, lacking only the funds to pack up the car and head out on the road with Naseema to follow them on tour. Such is the measure of my idolatry.
Standing outside the venue, the tips of my fingers getting colder after throwing away my coffee, I began to wonder what is it to see a band so many times? Some of the faces waiting patiently beside me were faces I knew, not because I know them personally, but as fellow supplicants waiting for their personal reverie. The person in front of me, making it well known he was flush, told tale of the shows in Boston the two previous nights. Behind me, old friends greet each other, possibly only seeing them on special occasions such as this.
Everyone that shows up an hour before the doors open to a general admission concert has a motive. The flush man divulged his plans to a friend he was meeting with later, explaining his every move. He was going to grab a poster then hit the front row with a woman I assume was his wife. Naseema and I had a similar plan: we split up, I grab the poster and she grab the spot in front, stage right.
This night, unlike many of the other evenings spent with Wilco, there was an opener, William Tyler, formerly of the Silver Jews. His modest set consisted of a chair, three guitars —a Martin small body acoustic, a Tele with a Bigsby and a Dead sticker on it, and a Dan Electro twelve string—, an amp and ample pedal board.
Starting out with the acoustic, he began playing complicated finger-picking style arrangements in an open tuning that droned creating a warm travel-like effect. I envisioned a Cameron Crowe movie, the third road movie after Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, with lots of golden yellows and sky blues and some beat up old car heading towards somewhere.
The last three songs were dedicated to the electric guitar and “Hotel California” via TCBY freezer stories, continuing the finger-picking (which, if you’re a guitar player, you know is odd considering the low action of both those guitars, although his finger nails so shiny they might have been fake more than made up for it). The effects came out in a whimsical display that involved radios and portable fans. By the end of his set, he thanked the crowd and Wilco for bringing him on tour, and said he’d like to come back, maybe forgetting he’s opening for the Mountain Goats on the very same stage in two months.
With the help of Wilco’s crew, Tyler’s stuff was packed up in less than five minutes, assuring plenty of time to tune all of Wilco’s guitars (of which there are many). Nels’ goldtop Les Paul, his famous Jazzmasters, Jeff’s SGs, Stirrat’s P-bass, Sansone’s Teles not to mention the acoustics (of which I will relate later). As I said we are standing stage right. We are standing stage right because Nels Cline, in the twelve years since he joined the band, has been standing stage right. Stage Right at a Wilco concert should be on a list of places to visit before you die.
As they have been doing, the band came out on stage and immediately ripped into the complete Star Wars album as they have done nearly every concert since it’s release. What has changed though is the band taking more liberties with the compositions. More drum and guitar solos have entered the picture, and there was a general nonchalance on stage between band members—not quite phoning it in, but definitely having fun with it.
(There’s something so cool about them doing the whole album. Star Wars isn’t the longest album, in fact, it’s their shortest, so it’s not a test of endurance. I don’t know why more bands don’t go up on stage and perform whole albums. )
The next eighteen songs comprised a sort of best-of compilation. Songs like “Handshake Drugs,” “Art of Almost,” and “Impossible Germany” have become staples of their setlists as of late. The former being carefully orchestrated to slowly pump up the audience (Nels did the “Marquee Moon” lick in “Handshake Drugs” again, Jeff smiled again) The latter being the vehicle that best serves Nels Cline’s abilities as a soloist. His technique is something like being able to hit so many notes in seemingly accidental order, with his massive hands covering so much of the guitar neck that notes that seem impossible to play together do. All in all, the solo lasted about three minutes, not including the outro, because jesus fuck can he play.
Of all the songs they brought out, I was most excited about “Bull Black Nova.” Wilco (The Album) has become something of a pariah in album terms, representing a nadir in creativity for Jeff Tweedy. Although not every song on that album is the general publics’ favorite or mine, songs like “Bull Black Nova,” “I’ll Fight,” and “You and I” are genuinely great Wilco songs that deserve more exposure.
The six-song encore was completely acoustic, something they’ve been doing more and more (perhaps in anticipation of a follow-up to Star Wars that Tweedy has described as “being very different in tone”). Three early songs “Misunderstood,” “I’m Always in Love,” and show-closer “A Shot in the Arm” play very differently stripped down, and it’s funny how subversive the toned down arrangements can highlight the obvious contriteness of Tweedy’s lyrics from the beginnings of Wilco. Who else could be as sad as him when singing a line like “I’m always in love?” But the highlight of the encore was definitely Stirratt’s vocals on “It’s Just That Simple.” The applause after the song ended lasted nearly as long as the song did to begin with.
The last line of “A Shot in the Arm” and therefore the last line of the concert before the band exited the stage was “What you once were isn’t what/You want to be any more.” What a great line. And as I exited to the extremely balmy January night in New Haven (not before Naseema snagged Tweedy’s set list), all I could think was “I fucking love Wilco.” I do. I fucking love Wilco.
Article: Christopher Gilson