A true mark of indelible talent is when those in the cheap seats have nothing but positive words to spill into their word document after the show. At the very least, that’s how this reporter felt while battling nosebleed and balancing on a bench during the ever-persistent genius of Wilco at LA’s own Greek Theater this past Wednesday. Exchanging hirsute melodies for crackling onslaughts of static to then change lobsters and dance into the broadside of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (pretending to admonish the opus proves futile) was in a word, phantasmal. With 20 years gone and Chicago but a place to hang their hats, Wilco’s tour is akin to living out a Karl May novel replete with Stetsons, graying beards, and an enormous German slinging a weapon – in this case, a lethal dose of guitar.
“That’s was our new album – if you want it, you can have it,” joked Jeff Tweedy weeks after the flash announcement of the free album online. “If you don’t want it,” he added, “why are you here?”
Despite the apparent jape, the query did lend itself to some existential wandering for the evening – for whom, other than the super-nerds (present) and quasi-fans could the sprawling career of the show truly appeal to? The low hanging fruit answer might read as “everybody” but that’s not the case. Not for the feeble, uninformed or overstimulated, the exclusivity of Wilco’s live show is neither calculated nor malicious. Why, it simply is how they operate. Sure, one will hear some favorites and bang along to “Hummingbird” but there’s no distillable “Americana” theme to their set. Wilco chooses not to plague itself with the “alt-rock” moniker they’ve been pinned with since the early days of snobbery. They’ve motioned to jam and by way of operating make light of these “serious” bands who still sock it in while on the road in 2015, and if your mother and father don’t quite understand that in section right terrace while gulping down a carafe of Zinfandel, that’s good news. It’s easy to appreciate this present nature of privileged live act. Yours truly isn’t yet in the club and it ain’t looking too bright, yet I’ll keep ‘em comin.
So what does one’s mind-numbing ignorance lead them to believe about the set over the course of two hours? It was sheer brilliance. (Those in the know would no doubt agree, though their opinions hold more weight.) Part of seeing Wilco is almost disenchanting, as the records seem to pale in comparison to the live versions, but such a thought soon dismissed by a repeat listen of Summer Teeth. “Handshake Drugs” takes on a entirely new form when emanating from the stage, “Art of Almost” seems unrecognizable. “Jesus etc.” takes on the form of a shade or a vision looming over the Greek, “Via Chicago” is a tight punchline exemplified by manic drumming and a middle finger.
Though the sextet has grown incredibly tight over the last decade with a consistent lineup, Tweedy’s direction grows ever splendorous alongside Nels Cline’s guitar virtuosity. One particular highlight of the evening was a stirring round of “Impossible Germany” spiked to near-perfection by Cline’s immaculate solo in what was some of the finest live guitar work to enhance an otherwise splendidly tepid tune. Brandishing a dual-necked guitar for “Dawned On Me,” the smirk Cline held in his back pocket took full form as the gaggles of would-be rabble rousers applauded.
The encore, though a mini-set in itself, led a man to quite literally remove his shirt and dance wildly to the classic “We’ve Been Had” from the Tupelo days. The band huddled around the front of the stage with banjo and slide, as if opening for someone more important. What a treat it was to behold John Stirratt take the reins on “It’s Just That Simple,” not sounding a day removed from the sentiment. The closing nicety of the century old “California Stars” was the proverbial bow on the package, cluing in everyone that hadn’t already errantly departed that they were, indeed, in the right time.
Part treasure, part mystery, party painfully obvious, the long and short of it is that they are goddamned good. Here’s to Wilco – may they keep on chooglin’