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Wilco @ Merriweather Post Pavilion: old is great, new is boring

Last night, several jazz musicians I really like were active on the east coast: Tim Berne playing with his Hard Cell trio at the Vision Festival in New York, Slava Ganelin with his Ganelin Trio Priority at An Die Musik in Baltimore, and Nels Cline with… Wilco at Merriweather Post Pavilion in suburban Maryland. I went to see the latter, because it was closest (if Berne had been closer he would have been the choice), I had friends going, and ever since Cline joined the band I’ve been a bit of a Wilco fanboy.

This was my fourth Wilco show in five years, so I more or less knew what to expect, and the band delivered. They were pretty on, and for a large venue the sound was pretty good. The wild card was the new material: as I mentioned before, I’m not much of a fan of the Sky Blue Sky songs, and I was hoping that seeing them live would improve my appreciation. Sadly, the opposite happened: when contrasted with their older material, the new songs came off even more lame and stilted than before. Half the fun of Wilco for me is the contrast between beautiful pop melody and all-out joyful noisemaking (Cline in particular adds a lot to this aspect of their sound, of course). Sky Blue Sky’s songs have a complete dearth of the latter, and a lot of them lack the former as well. The most telling transition was one between “Via Chicago” (a perfect example of an effective meshing of melody and noise) and one of the new songs. My heart was thumping and I was grinning during “Via Chicago,” but then once the next song started, I sat down and quickly lost interest.

Oddly enough, then, my favorite song in the set was actually one of the new ones: “Impossible Germany.” This is the one that so surprised me last year, when Chris compared it to The Allman Brothers. Then, and on record, the three-guitar jam that makes up the second half of the song was nicely melodic, if completely inoffensive. But at this show, while Tweedy and Sansone played the interlocking melody straight-up, Cline went and fucked it all up, playing the kind of noisy solo that would have fit much more comfortably on Downpour (his free-improv set with Andrea Parkins and Tom Rainey from FIMAV last year) than Sky Blue Sky. The result was phenomenal, an instrumental passage that combined the white-knuckle tension of the best free jazz solos with the consummate melodicism that marks so much of Wilco’s earlier work.

The other highlight was “Poor Places,” whose noisy denouement transitioned smoothly into the motorik beat of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” I was shocked and delighted that they would play the latter song at all, given how it’s 180 degrees away from their new material. Sadly it wasn’t as tight as I hoped; the delicious tension of the song comes in large part from Tweedy’s ability to take the core guitar melody and play around with it considerably while still leaving in tantalizingly recognizable bits, but this time around it seemed like he got away from that melody and was kind of aimless. Still, I do love that song, and its Krautrockish foundation has a trancelike effect in concert.

One other thing of note was that Tweedy was, with the exception of “Spiders,” relegated almost exclusively to rhythm guitar, allowing Cline to really take the spotlight and show off his abilities. This certainly added to my enjoyment of the show, as I spend most of my time at Wilco concerts watching him anyway (though the rest of the band are certainly no slouches, this guy is just really entertaining to watch).

The lame Sky Blue Sky songs aside, this was a good concert, and per their norm, they played a long set, including three encores, coming in at somewhere between two and two and a half hours. I have never seen these guys put on anything less than a really good show. The crowd was interesting to me — instead of the slew of hipsters I saw at all the previous shows, this time it seemed like a frat-boy crowd of the sort that would go to see the Dave Matthews Band. Still, they all seemed like big fans and knew all the songs, so I wonder if it was just the difference in venue or location that was the cause. But somehow I don’t think Wilco was much of a frat-boy band until very recently. After all, it was just a few short years (and one Grammy) ago that mainstream music fans at Yale called the show Wilco played there a “disappointing display of musical mediocrity” full of “monotonous melodies.” What a difference four years makes!

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