Being a Wilco virgin, I was under the tutelage of a handful of veteran listeners who explained that Wilco was more then just alt country. The band’s latest album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has garnered much critical acclaim and was even being compared to the Beatles’ White Album, stated one of my new mentors.
Compared to the White Album?! We’ll see for ourselves, I thought, as we headed for the student union at University of Iowa.
It was SRO at the Iowa Memorial Union, a smoke- and alcohol-free venue. Wilco took the stage around 9:30 p.m., played two encores, then a surprise third, and didn’t finish until 11:30. There were more than a few musicians and music fans from the Quad Cities in attendance. This was the last show of the group’s fall tour, which included roughly 20 dates in major cities such as Seattle, L.A., Denver, Dallas, Austin, Boston, and New York. So ending the tour in Iowa City was a well-received special treat for the 1,500-plus fans in attendance Sunday night.
The band was made up of Jeff Tweedy on lead guitar, vocals and harmonica; John Stirrat on bass and vocals; Leroy Bach on guitar and keyboards; Mike Jorgensen on keyboards, laptop, and cowbell; and Glen Kotche on drums. Tweedy, the giant of this hard-to-define genre of alternative rock, country, punk, and folk, is from Bellville, Illinois, but now calls Chicago home base. He was one of the founding members of Uncle Tupelo in the 1990s. That band split with much ado, and his cohort Jay Farrar formed Son Volt while Tweedy went on to form Wilco. Music fans were definitely the winners in this war of wills and musical visions, as both artists have spawned numerous spin-off creations.
Wilco led off with “Via Chicago,” perhaps an homage to its base of operations or even a nod to the short ride home that night after the show. Tweedy was wielding both guitar and harmonica for the first few songs. The sound was crisp, clear, not too loud, and solid throughout the concert. Some Internet postings and previous reviews have stated the band is too sedate on stage, “resembling a bunch of geriatric patients.” Not so in Iowa City. Yes, the band played nearly every song off its decidedly studio album YHF, but it also added a verve and punch to the tunes not found on the CD.
The quirky sound effects that had created such a stir with the group’s record label (and was part of the reason for such a delay in the record’s release) were present here and pulled off seamlessly via Mike Jorgensen’s laptop. One of my Wilco mentors exclaimed that he couldn’t believe Wilco was able to bring out the studio effects so well in the concert hall and had assumed the band would not even try. The effect was not overplayed; rather, it added a multi-layered and rich landscape to song intros and interludes.
The rhythm section of Wilco is not to be undervalued. Stirrat provided a solid wall of bass that rolled and rocked, sometimes subdued, sometimes powerful, and Kotche can only be described as a monster on the drum kit. I’ve never seen a drummer pull so much variety and richness of sound out of a set of cymbals. He nearly stole the show with his prowess, constantly switching weapons of choice and morphing from jazz to world beat to metal to country to blues percussion deliveries.
Tweedy seemed relaxed and bantered with the crowd off and on, recognizing the fanataics who have followed the band on tour and reading aloud the handmade sign that an avid fan held up for four songs. Maybe he’s enjoying the fruits of his labors with YHF. He introduced Mike Jorgensen as the “worst member of our band” at one point, making reference to the criticism the band received for adding a computer geek to their ranks. “We love him and are proud of the work he’s done with us,” Tweedy said.
Not having cultivated an appetite yet for Wilco’s sound, which has been rightfully called a new American aesthetic, I found myself wincing at moments of formulaic pop and nearly trite country-fication. But with each song, Wilco turned those clichés on their ears and surprised me with complex rhythm and lead-guitar arrangements, fierce soloing by Tweedy, wistful and haunting keyboards, and consistently inventive drumming.
The band played more than 20 songs, including two five-song encores. The first encore included three songs off 1998’s Mermaid Ave. , a collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco that was a collection of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics set to Wilco’s and Bragg’s music: “Hesitating Beauty,” “One By One,” and “California Stars.” The second encore included “Monday” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” off Being There, Uncle Tupelo’s “We’ve Been Had” off Anodyne, and “Casino Queen” from Wilco’s first album, A.M. My mentors were correct: Wilco was way more than alt country. The band simultaneously emanated the music they no doubt fed on as young cornfield punkers. This includes the slow, groovy vocal delivery of Steely Dan with the sardonic, subtle twangs of Keith Richards, intertwined with spacey aural walls of Pink Floyd and Neil Young and the rock-and-roll energy of Black Flag and AC/DC.
After nearly one third of the crowd had left the building, Wilco surprised those of us left with yet a third encore in which they pushed the envelope even farther with displays of vertical leaping and windmill-guitaring, really enjoying the last set of this last show of the tour. The band’s Web site thanks everyone who came out to the group’s shows and announces a New Zealand and Australia tour in January and February, as well as the release of YHF on vinyl. Check out the goodies at (http://www.wilcoworld.net).