(Editor’s note: Wow, What the Hell Just Happened Week certainly dragged on, didn’t it? The idea was to recap all the amazing music I saw between 9/21 and 9/25, openers and headliners alike, and though travels prevented me from finishing this last chapter in a timely fashion, they also gave me plenty of time to mull it over. Without further ado, here’s the final installment (complete with eyeball-friendly left justification and paragraphs!).
What the Hell Just Happened?!? Week: Day 5 — Wilco
It’s hard to write about your favorite band in the whole wide world, and I can say with conviction that Wilco has earned that distinction for me.
Despite that conviction about my favorite band, I can’t tell you what my favorite song in the world is. The same is true with albums. I think it’s because the answer changes so often. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Songs don’t change. They can be remixed, covered, sampled and chopped up to fit into a 15-second commercial, but the original text stays the same (Can Let It Be Naked be the one exception? Can we all pretend that’s the real one?).
Bands, on the other hand, evolve. Bands venture in new musical directions, add members, find religion, go to rehab, change labels, become political, release concept albums, go back into rehab… they’re as dynamic as the people that comprise them. Such is certainly the case with Wilco, a group that’s undergone a lineup change after almost every record, the exceptions being their latest two efforts. So why is it so easy for me to say that Wilco is my favorite band? Why hasn’t that changed? Their show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on September 25 gave me the perfect opportunity to figure that out, but not for the reason I expected.
I’d already been to two Wilco concerts, one at Charlottesville Pavilion and one at the National in Richmond. I’d even seen Jeff Tweedy perform solo at the Paramount Theater on Charlottesville’s downtown mall. All were great shows, but on this occasion, my bandmate Mike’s wife had gotten her hands on an extra pair of general admission floor tickets (she’s the undisputed queen of online ticketing systems), meaning we’d be in a small section directly in front of the stage. Once we were there, we settled in just a few amorphous rows back, close enough that Nels Cline must have been able feel the creepy glow of my guitadmiration (You know… guitar admiration… enviously watching someone play guitar better than you could ever hope to do. That’s not a word?). Certainly this vantage point should have been close enough for me to crack the Wil-code once and for all.
As the night wore on (and you can hear the whole show here, courtesy of the lovely people at NPR Music), what struck me most was how, standing so near, it was nearly impossible to wrap my brain around what I was seeing. Watching Tweedy strum his acoustic guitar, thinking about the small part that his instrument played in the song at large, I was overcome by the guitar part’s subtlety and the overall beauty of what I was seeing… and that’s when it hit me — the answer, in all its simplistic glory, to the question of why Wilco stands out above so many other cherished groups: Wilco is the most complete band playing music today.
All the Wil-components (OK, I’ll stop now) add up to a whole that offers an unmatched combination of experience, musicianship, imagination and, above all else, cohesion. That’s not to say the individual performances should be overlooked. Cline’s guitar on “Impossible Germany” is a phenomenal sight to behold — you know you’re doing something right when the crowd cheers with excitement at the beginning of your guitar solo — and Glenn Kotche’s dazzling fits of cacophony during “Via Chicago” grab you by the id, tapping into the same dark, human desire for chaos that makes it impossible to turn off the Weather Channel during a natural disaster (Kotche’s drumming offers a much healthier outlet, in my opinion). But as spectacular as these moments are, especially up close, they are nothing compared to the power of the band as a whole.
Tweedy has made sure of that, imposing his ethos at every step in the band’s long history, most notably by dismissing Jay Bennett, who, by his own admission, was trying to gain some control over the group’s creative direction. But the thing that separates Tweedy from a petty control freak is that he doesn’t overpower his colleagues, musically speaking. He’s the undisputed frontman, but he’s also smart enough to know that the dish he’s preparing tastes best with a balanced apportionment of ingredients.
We got an interesting glimpse of this careful recipe at Merriweather Post Pavilion, as Cline was handed an out-of-tune guitar before “One Wing” (above). For a few moments at the beginning of the song, the off-tuning showed us something extremely rare — a piece of a Wilco song that’s out of balance. It was like seeing a nocturnal animal walking around in the middle of the day. The tuning was fixed quickly, but I couldn’t take my mind off how great the guitar part sounded once it was back in tune, and how I may never have noticed that particular element had it not accidentally jumped out of line. But it had always been there, serving the song, in perfect harmony with all the other elements.
That masterful balance is what makes Wilco a transcendent band, and it’s what makes every seat at a Wilco concert the best seat in the house. You don’t need to be standing up front to enjoy the full effect of the most complete band playing today.
That said, if you have an extra pair of GA floor tickets to Wilco in the future, ummm, hit me up.
Check out the version of “One Wing” I’m talking about above, the studio version below, and buy the album from whence it came, Wilco (The Album), here.
Wilco — “One Wing”