Watching Wilco is like watching a highway chase in slow motion. Songs twist and turn, careening violently out of control, and at any moment it feels like a mis-step could carry the band over the centerline and into a wreck. Their sonic violence certainly isn’t an explosion or a burst of euphonic energy – it is a methodically paced and masterfully deliberate destruction. Wilco is a band on the edge of the end, dancing with their denouement. Each song they play feels like it could be their last. It is that desperation and intensity that has made Wilco America’s best band.
Ironically, almost a year ago, Wilco almost wasn’t a band. After wrapping up work on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their label Warner/Reprise refused to put out the set, condemning it as a career ender. Tensions were complicated when original guitarist Jay Bennett bolted for good amid the dispute with Warner Brothers/Reprise.
After purchasing the rights to Yankee, the band released the set on the Internet and the record raked in rave reviews and notable namedrops nationwide. Following a tour in the fall, Nonesuch Records, (comically, a division of the Warner Brothers’ label) picked up Wilco, essentially re-buying the rights to an album Warner Brothers had sold back to the band months ago.
From the moment Wilco took the stage, sinking into “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” it felt like the beginning of the end. After staggering perfectly through the song’s minute-plus opening, it became crystal clear when Jeff Tweedy began his wonderfully laconic delivery that he was the one driving Wilco wherever he chose.
Wilco countered the country-fried acoustic flippancy of the richly orchestrated “Jesus Etc.” with the simple pop perfection of “Heavy Metal Drummer.” It was during the homage to love-lost to a timekeeper that the enigmatic Jeff Tweedy cracked his first smile of the night. The show gained steady steam with “Heavy Metal Drummer” and built to the show’s aural peak during “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” which followed it immediately.
The dirt-filled bluesy beginning “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” washes away to psychedelics then bursts open completely into a gentle rain of strumming, complete with a second guitar filling in the details, like a series of PSs at the conclusion of the letter Jeff Tweedy is writing to the world.
While many of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s songs dominated the setlist, Wilco managed to toss in a handful of Summerteeth tunes. After rumbling and bouncing through the not-so-veiled heroin referencing “A Shot in the Arm,” Wilco turned in their finest performance of the night on their finest song.
The arduously depressing “She’s A Jar” – far and away the best song the band has recorded – was beaten down to new depths of depression with Tweedy’s strange-time strums and adjusted tempo singing. The bands backing vocals were as hauntingly harmonious live as they are on Summerteeth. When he felt like it, Tweedy cut a word here and there, displaying clearly that he was the song’s master and could take the tune wherever he desired.
Before their return for a pair of encores, Jeff Tweedy may have subversively made his only comments about the future of the band. On the magically tragic “Reservations,” minor-sounding keyboards plunked disparingly pushing the song forward, while Tweedy’s voice wrestled and groaned, begging and pleading to pull it back. The singer/songwriter is well aware of the dire straits and slippery slope Wilco’s footing is steeped in. He cooed to the crowd, “I’ve got reservations/about so many things/but not about you.” Tweedy’s reservations about Wilco’s future are more than warranted, and like much of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, are terribly poignant.