Since then, I've been to one more Wilco show this year, finishing out my summer Sept. 25 at Britt Fest in Jacksonville. After that expereince I decided to dig a little deeper into why I love this band and that editorial piece is below. For those of you who choose to fully read my bloviating, hopefully you'll be inspired to check out their music. I know it's long, but there was a lot to say.
(If you want, you can stream a Wilco peformance from a couple of nights ago in Madrid while you read.)
After finishing off summer at Britt Fest with my fourth Wilco show this year, I feel compelled to write about them and offer a bit of why I love them so much. But in order to editorialize about my favorite band without coming across as just some super-mega-fan with my head in the clouds, I should probably start at the beginning. After all, if album sales are any indication, there are tens of millions of people in the U.S. who have never heard of Chicago alt-rock band Wilco.
Wilco rose from the ashes of pioneering alternative country band Uncle Tupelo. In that band, Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy shared the spotlight with current Son Volt lead singer Jay Farrar. After four albums and mild underground success, Tweedy and Farrar parted ways in 1994, each taking members of Uncle Tupelo with them.
At first, the formation of Wilco didn’t signal much of a change in the music Tweedy was creating. With Uncle Tupelo bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer joining him, the alt-country sound remained prominent on Wilco’s debut album A.M. when it was released in 1995. Wilco followed that up with the double LP Being There—an album about the relationship between the musician and the listener. It was with the release of Summerteeth in 1999 that Wilco finally started to show flashes of experimentation.
After a detour collaborating with folk troubadour Billy Bragg on a collection of Woody Guthrie songs, Wilco continued on the road of rock-and-roll experimentation. Producer and musician Jim O’Rourke came on to mix and engineered the band’s fourth studio album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after performing with Tweedy in the side-project trio Loose Fur. YHF was released in 2002 and to this day is Wilco’s bestselling album. It was also named to virtually every major music publication’s best-of-list for that decade.
The album featured background space-synth and sampled noise-turned-music alongside Tweedy’s sometimes elusive lyrics. “I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue. I’m hiding out in the big city blinking. What was I thinking when I let go of you,” are the opening words to the album’s first track “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. They referenced Tweedy’s struggle to maintain important relationships in the midst of destructive behavior and were the first chance I had to interact with his music.
A friend had shared a file of the album with me in 2003. For whatever reason, I didn’t get around to listening to it until much later that year. I thought it was nice, but I was fairly intimidated by the album’s imagery and consequently felt too ashamed to listen to it. I didn’t want people to know I was listening to Wilco, ask me a question about a song and then display my ignorance to the album’s subject matter by fumbling an answer. It wasn’t until 2006 that I started to actively listen to Wilco, and I have Pandora to thank for that.
By then Wilco had released A Ghost Is Born, an album that would win them a Grammy for best alternative album. I ended up finding my way to the Wilco station on Pandora and every so often songs from A Ghost Is Born as well as their previous albums were filtered in to the stream. At first I was listening because their music sounded nice. Songs like “War on War” and “Hummingbird” were my entry points and eventually I overcame my cold feet. I became determined to learn Tweedy’s music and decipher his lyrics, so I picked up a couple previous albums and dug in.
For the next three years, Wilco continued to find their way into my current playlists and Pandora streams more than most any other band. Over time I was struck by two things.
First, the music of Wilco didn’t sound like anything else I could find. It not only showed immense growth from the early country tracks of A.M. but just when a song—like “Heavy Metal Drummer,” on YHF seemed like it might signal a switch to something a little more mainstream, I’d be pulled right back into the world of experimentation and true alternative rock with a song like “Reservations.”
Second, the lyrics weren’t contrived. Sometimes themes were buried deep in Tweedy’s brand of metaphor and poetry requiring intense excavation to unearth. Other times—like the opening to “Misunderstood,” lyrics could be classically simple and heartfelt. Regardless of which route Tweedy took, the songs were always honest and provided tremendous insight into his soul. As a result, I could find elements of my own story in his and I started to connect with the music.
Still, Wilco remained largely just a good band that I trusted my ears to more often than not. I didn’t make the leap to labeling them my favorite band until I saw them live for the first time in June of 2009. That show at Jacksonville’s Britt Pavilion was one I will never forget.
We were front row to a stage two feet away and two feet off the ground. Guitarist Nels Cline ripped through guitar solos, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone wind-milled his arm around in classic rocker fashion. Mikael Jorgensen laid into his keyboards with aggression and finesse while drummer Glen Kotche destroyed the drums and seemed to be in a world all his own. Bassist Stirratt was stoic and unwavering and Tweedy treated each song like they were his favorite.
Wilco ended up playing past their allotted time with a six song encore and the crowd erupted.
Listening to their music during the drive home that night and the reflection during subsequent days provided me with only one conclusion—Wilco was the greatest American rock band of all time and my new favorite.
Since then I’ve seen Wilco six more times and each show is different. Sometimes Tweedy talks to the audience a lot and sometimes he barely says a word. Set lists change as frequently as people change their socks.
Fittingly, one thing I’ve noticed is that indoor shows tend to be more internal and outdoor shows tend to be more external. Whether at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland or The Hult Center in Eugene, Wilco has a tendency to focus in on themselves and playing tightly as a group. This results in shows where each song builds upon the last culminating in one big rock-and-roll explosion.
Outside however, the band makes its performance more about the fans, they play off the energy of the crowd rather than themselves and unlike the indoor shows you come away feeling like you know the band a little more. It’s hard to say which is better, but I tend to lean toward the outdoor shows a bit. I think it’s because I prefer connecting with the band versus watching them.
I know that the music of Wilco will probably never appeal to even the majority of music lovers. Frankly, I don’t think it’s meant to. It almost didn’t to me. But just like most things in this world, you end up appreciating that which you work for the most. And believe me, liking and understand the music of Wilco takes work—but the payoff is huge.