So I saw Wilco last night at the 9:30 Club here in DC. I think this might be the first time I’ve seen a Grammy Award-winning band in concert. Ha.
In any case, being a Grammy Award-winning band automatically means that the makeup of your audience is going to change slightly. In this case, it seemed to me that the audience was more annoying than usual for the 9:30 (at least compared to shows I’ve been to) - there were a lot of folks talking loudly during songs and stuff. Or maybe it was just the asshole next to me. Hmm.
Anyway, I was watching Nels Cline a lot. He was outstanding. For a large part of the show - half or more of the main set - he was the lead guitarist, with bandleader Jeff Tweedy playing rhythm. His leads were clean and beautiful for the most part - the man plays with a lot of feeling. I was a little disappointed that some of the wilder freakout sections were led by Tweedy - don’t get me wrong, I love Tweedy’s soloing, and it’s pretty out there on its own; I just wanted to hear what Cline would do given the freedom to completely let loose. It never quite seemed as if he had that freedom, but I guess that shouldn’t be surprising given that, fundamentally, despite all their weirdness, Wilco is a pop-rock band, not a free jazz combo. Cline seemed like he was really into it and having a great time; I was wondering if there would be hints of restlessness as his being a mere sideman in a pop band, but I didn’t see any.
Amusingly, for the first half of the show it almost seemed like Wilco was fucking with their new fans. They were steadfastly refusing to play the big poppy hits like “Heavy metal drummer” (though they did play “Hummingbird” fairly early, and man was it weird to see Cline play a saccharine pop song like that one!), instead focusing on making lots of noise with their guitars and electronics. By the time the encores (two of ‘em) rolled around, though, the band was in crowd-pleasing mode. That said, “Misunderstood,” the only remaining mega-hit from Being There, ends on a distinctly anti-pop note, with Tweedy screaming “Nothing!” over and over and over and over again (as part of the refrain “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all”). I love this part of the song, if only because it goes on and on and on to the point of discomfort, and it’s fascinating to see how different people react to it. It’s the kind of thing that’s intentionally tailored towards alienating an audience, but the funny thing is that Wilco has become so popular that even that intentional alienation isn’t enough to keep fans from cheering wildly.
The closer of the main set was also the best song the band played - “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” from A Ghost is Born. This is a ten-minute Krautrock freakout which basically gives Tweedy an excuse to flail wildly on his guitar. The studio cut is a bit tame and therefore seems over-long sometimes, but I still enjoy it. Live, it’s a different thing altogether. Tweedy was shredding, and Cline - though disappointingly mostly playing rhythm - also had a few moments of complete, blissful sonic violence. Holy crap, this piece was a fucking beast. The soloing was noisy and amelodic, but so intense and passionate that everyone in the club seemed ecstatic. Great moment.
Those thoughts were pretty scattered, but suffice it to say it was a good show. They played for a long time - two and a half hours or so. I came away very impressed by Nels Cline - I would really like to see him in a jazz context now. I’m not sure I liked the show as much as the one I saw at Yale a couple years ago, but that might have been because I knew more of what to expect this time around. Two years ago, I knew to expect something a little out of the ordinary, but the avant elements of Wilco’s sound took me totally by surprise back then. This time, I might have been anticipating those avant elements (especially given Cline’s presence) a little too much.
Incidentally, the show was streamed on NPR and is still available on their website, if you’re interested.