27 June 2007

Review: Wilco


Warsaw, Brooklyn, 26 June 2007

Is it possible for a show to be all downhill after the opening number and still be one of the better shows I've seen this year? Yes, if the slope of that hill is so slight as to be imperceptible... or that opening number is so unbelievably sublime that there's no where to go but down.

Wilco opened their Tuesday night sweatfest at the Warsaw in Brooklyn with a "Sunken Treasure" that couldn't have been more perfect. The sound was incredibly crisp in the room from the get-go (a rarity for the Warsaw, in my limited experience there) and the room became a drag net, the audience scooping up every wail of the steel guitar on Nels Cline's lap, every whisper of Jeff Tweedy's acoustic guitar, every lyric on down... fished out of the ocean of the Wilco sound and devoured to the bone. Like I said, perfect. And then the tune somersaulted so that the band was alive again on stage, darting around in an extended outro section like a school of tropical fish around a coral reef in crystal clear water. What else can I say to describe the natural beauty of the music being made, stretched out over minutes that could have constituted the entire evening. The whole thing lasted in excess of 8 ticks of the big hand, but really time stood still like it has for the old Polish National Home that we were all crammed into. Was it all downhill from there?

Of course, the show went on and the highlights were... well, what do you call a highlight when everything is a highlight? Seriously, it feels absurd to pick out individual songs or moments or even stretches of the night. Wilco is just, flat out, the best live pure rock and roll band out there. The live show is an art form that these guys have perfected and on a Tuesday night in Brooklyn, they more than defended that title. The setlist can be perused below:

Sunken Treasure, You Are My Face, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Handshake Drugs, Pot Kettle Black, Side With The Seeds, A Shot in the Arm> Wishful Thinking, Impossible Germany, Sky Blue Sky, Why Would You Wanna Live, War on War, Jesus, etc., Theologians, Walken, I'm The Man Who Loves You, Hummingbird, On and On and On

E1: Either Way, Ashes of American Flags, Reservations > Spiders (Kidsmoke)
E2: Hate It Here, The Late Greats, Hoodoo Voodoo, Outta Mind (Outtasite)

Everything was as it should have been. When the band needed to launch into a rollicking fist-pumper, they were ready and when they needed to cool down with something a little more introspective, they did not hesitate. Ostensibly, Wilco is supporting their newest release, Sky Blue Sky, but Tweedy & Co. are really quite beyond such silliness. Tours perpetuate themselves and within the live setting, there is very little thinking about which song came from which album... at least in my mind. With this philosophy in hand, everything sounded no-doubt-about-it fantastic.

The band -- 6 strong -- is doing nothing special it seems, and yet every feat they perform seems Herculean. Watching them on stage, it is as if each musician has his own little narrative going on. Occasionally these overlap, but the jounrey's seem distinct. In this way, they are like a swinging jazz band and ones perception of the music becomes clouded or colored by their vantage point. From my spot on the right side of the room, I somehow became the Earth caught in alignment with the Saturn and Jupiter of John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche on bass and drums. Stirratt was an especially potent planet, spinning multiple moons of blissfully billous bass bouncing off all four of Warsaw's walls. The rhythm battery controlled the energy all night even overwhelming the occasional 3-guitar set with their playing.

Of course, those on the other side may have perceived things differently. Perhaps they were entranced by Nels' scintillating guitar work. Cline is the kind of axe-slinger that is constantly shredding to the point where he is both the persistent center of attention and yet never so in-your-face that you can't appreciate the rest of the band. And he's undoubtedly still learning -- scary to think. Whether we were zoned in on Cline or Kotche or that macramé owl or kept focussed on Tweedy from note one, there's no doubt we were all enjoying the heck out of it regardless. The crowd was amped to the point of insanity. I can't recall the last time I was caught in such an overwhelming undertoe of audience energy. The upswell of rhythmic clapping caught hold of the room before the band had even taken the stage and such enthusiasm only built in fury 150 minutes later when they finally just had to turn the lights on to get us to accept that the show had to end some time. But the crowd wasn't just a crazed juggernaut, when things chilled out onstage, we were right there in synch. More importantly, when Tweedy called for it, the singalongativeness of the audience was awesome, but when it wasn't called for was quickly stashed away.

Like his singing, his guitar playing and his banter in between, Tweedy also played the crowd like a Gibson. This reached a climax during the blistering Spiders in the encore when the crowd spontaneously caught up the rhythm and manifested its enthusiasm in a somehow non-annoying clap-along that pretty much drowned out the band. Jeff twisted this expertly, fading the band out at will and leaving the clapping on its own, which quickened its pace almost immediately like a locker room psych-up. Just at the moment of explosion, Tweedy dropped the band back into the neck-cranking coda of the tune. Explode! Sick!

The banter was minimal, but perfectly placed. At one point Jeff asked "is it obvious we don't have a curfew tonight?" before explaining that this was the only gig of the tour to afford them that luxury. I couldn't say whether this actually translated into a longer show, but it certainly felt like it... which I guess is the point. It wasn't that hard to make us all feel special, was it? Undoubtedly it did translate into a looser band, one that didn't hesitate to go balls to the wall despite the insanely sticky air. Glenn was a sweaty mess barely 30 minutes into the evening and everyone else was in a similar state soon enough. It may be illegal in some places to have that much fun on a Tuesday night, but not in Brooklyn!

Well, hell, you get the idea right. The show was sweet, to a song... to a Mexican-standoff guitar jam... to a note. Om the time of the summer blockbuster, Wilco was The Fantastic Four. Not that there are 4 of 'em, obviously, but that they hit all four corners of the ass-kicking rockandroll rectangle. They have the flexibility of Mr Fantastic, rending themselves into any shape that they wish. That Spiders somehow emerged from the slow-moving Reservations in a way that only Wilco could make happen. At times they're barely audible, the Invisible Woman, sneaking around with subtle songwriteringly sweetness. Hummingbird, Jesus, etc... of course, while the band didn't quite disappear at these moments, more just hiding behind the audience singing proud and in key. Then others they are the freaking Thing, bashing every cognizant entity in the building with rockers like Shot In The Arm or the blitzkrieg outro of Trying to Break Your Heart. Very often they did the Invisible > big rocky monster thing within one tune: Impossible Germany being such a two-headed beast that eased in slow and easy but eventually climaxed with a slick multi-guitar + bass + noise "jam" that was as powerful as anything else all night. I think the Human Torch goes without explanation. It was hot in there, really freaking hot, and the temperature inside was only part of it. Wilco is on fire.

I've seen the band in a wide range of venues over the last few years from the Bowery Ballroom to Radio City; from Roseland Ballroom to festival ground to freakin' Madison Square Garden for crissakes. They've nailed them all. Wilco is one of the few bands that could probably handle every room in the city. Beacon Theater, Town Hall... Carnegie, Mercury.. Bandshell, Rumsey... is there any doubt that they'd conform, rise to the occasion, be the right band.

1 comment:

Tree said...

You nailed it. I missed the Warsaw show, but I did catch them at the grossly-oversold Hammerstein Ballroom. My first Wilco show was 8/13/95 at the HORDE Festival in Milwaukee. They have evolved from a banjo-playing country act to one of the most explosive live acts in the history of rock n' roll. They are sbsolutely shredding everything! Spiders seems to be the song of the tour. I can't wait to hear the Reservations->Spiders from Warsaw.