Wilco. Red Rocks. 07.14.15
The Black Crowes and Blues Traveler co-headlined H.O.R.D.E. when the festival made a stop at Cal State Dominquez Hills in the summer of ’95. Ziggy Marley and The Melody Makers also made an appearance on the larger stage, but it was earlier in day, as the sun shone bright above the Southern California Velodrome, that a relatively unknown band on the smaller stage really caught my attention. Wilco was that band…and they had the unfortunate task of trying to compete with the big stage for people’s attention. They also had to follow Joan Osborne, whose “One of Us” was saturating the airwaves at the time. Wilco might not have been a household name that summer, but Jeff Tweedy had his fair share of followers. So it was that all the Uncle Tupelo fans were gathered in front of the stage to witness Wilco perform songs from their debut album, AM. I can’t recall all the details of that performance, but I know tracks like “Box Full Of Letters” (“I just can’t find the time, to write my mind, the way I want it to read”) and “Passenger Side” (“passenger side, passenger siiiide, I don’t like riding…on the passenger side”) did a good job at wrestling my mind away from that Joan Osborne song. I bought the album at Lou’s Records the next day and have considered myself a causal fan of the band ever since.
Wilco grew up quick after their run with H.O.R.D.E. The festival name was an acronym for Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere, and out of all the bands that graced those stages, it could be argued that Wilco developed the most in the years that followed. The double-LP Being There was a masterpiece that helped define the alt-country scene. It will forever be my favorite Wilco album, but when they made the move from Reprise to Nonesuch Records, Tweedy took the band to another level of experimentation — far beyond the borders of what could be considered country music. Part psychedelic, part jam band, part Americana – with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the definition of Wilco became blurry. Essentially, Wilco was nothing more or less than Wilco. They didn’t sound like anything that came before or after. It is now public knowledge that Tweedy had to go to some dark places to find that sound, so it’s not surprising that when he decided to seek the light again, the band’s sound mellowed back into carefully crafted rock songs that exist on a level plane. Somewhere along the road from there to here, Tweedy lost members of the band, but he’s always been able to fill the gaps with more than adequate players. The addition of Nels Cline, one of the greatest guitar players of all time (no matter what Mark Kozelek says), brought something to the stage that no one even realized was missing. So when the current incarnation of Wilco presented themselves to Red Rocks on Tuesday night to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the band, it was a much different scene than the one I witnessed in 1995. But just like twenty years ago, they performed a set of songs that are still stuck in my head days later.
The stage was simple — a giant rug, some lights that simulated neon rain drops, and the band. Tweedy was up front and center in a button-down flannel, a pair of jeans, glasses and a white cowboy hat. He had put on some weight since that show in Southern California, and the years were written across his face, but as he opened the night up with “Handshake Drugs” (one of the many tracks from A Ghost Is Born), it was obvious those years had been kind to his voice. A level of maturity suit the songs well. There was a guitar store setup on the side of the stage and it immediately became obvious why it was there. Nels Cline. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen Wilco perform with Cline, but from my viewpoint in the fifth row, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the man. His insatiable appetite was fed with guitar after guitar after guitar, sometimes going through as many as three during a single song. He threatened to steal the show away from Tweedy, but ever the gracious host, the front man kept to the shadows, never requiring the spotlight. The man responsible for 20 years of Wilco went through quite a few guitars himself, but he seemed almost humbled as he introduced Cline, along with the rest of the band. All masters of their craft, Stirratt (bass), Kotche (drums), Jorgensen and Sansone (keys and various other instruments) held their own through a career-spanning setlist that touched on the cornerstones of alt-country, alternative and experimental rock, as well as folk.
There wasn’t a lot of banter throughout the set, but when Tweedy asked “is everybody ok?, he seemed sincere. It was a valid question, because during the prior song, “Sunken Treasure”, when he claimed to be “so out of tune with you”, he was actually completely plugged into the collective consciousness of the crowd…so much so, that when he confessed to being “maimed by rock and roll”, the audience howled like a bunch of empaths who could personally feel his pain. “Jesus, etc.” was dedicated to a recently engaged couple, but Tweedy had to restart the song after he accidently stepped on his pedal. “I fucked up, that’s the gist of it. I’m unprofessional. I’ve only been doing this for twenty years. Give me another ten.” It was a moment of levity where you could see Tweedy as the family man that he truly is. I believe he has been sober for quite a while now, but he claimed to be getting high off the smell coming from the front row. Evidently it was the aroma of ‘weed pizza’.
Acknowledging the anniversary, the band pulled out the two ‘nuggets’ that first grabbed my attention when I was a teenager. “Passenger Side” and “Box Full of Letters” sounded better than they ever had before. The concert continued on, back and forth through the decades, before the main set closed with “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”. The first encore was to be expected. It consisted of a three song set, including a couple more from Summerteeth. The second encore came as a surprise. It consisted of an acoustic set, with Cline on the lap steel. The sextet formed a circle in the middle of the stage and proceeded into “War on War”. The mini-set continued into Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid” before we were treated to a couple Mermaid Avenue selections (“by a man who had ‘this machine kills fascists written on his guitar’”). And then the night ended with my very favorite Wilco song – “Misunderstood”.
“When you’re back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood”
Critics of Wilco have always thrown around the ‘Dad Rock’ label. I’ve heard the band referred to as boring, vanilla and dull. I can understand where those critics are coming from. Wilco’s strengths are not at the surface. You have to dig a little deeper. And I’ll even admit to having mixed feelings about their latest material. But I have a history with the band. I’ve been with them since the beginning. There are layers and details and meanings that can only be uncovered on multiple listens. Wilco takes patience and dedication, but they will reward you for your time. I’ve had their music on repeat in my headphones while traveling through more countries than I can count. Songs like “Misunderstood” just sound like home to me now. I realize it hasn’t been an easy road for Jeff Tweedy, so it’s encouraging to see him in such a good place. A band like Wilco gives me faith that longevity is possible in the bands of my generation. They just dropped a new album on the internet yesterday…and it’s free! I haven’t listened to it yet, and I doubt it will stand up to Being There, but the fact that it exists makes me happy. Here’s to another twenty years of Wilco! And here’s to bringing the H.O.R.D.E. Festival back! Maybe they can even headline this time around. God knows they’ve earned it.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
At Least That’s What You Said
Secret of the Sea
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Dawned on Me
Forget the Flowers
Box Full of Letters
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
The Late Greats
I’m Always in Love
A Shot in the Arm
War on War