Wilco Melts Faces

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I’m a late bloomer when it comes to Wilco. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. I remember friends waxing poetic about “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” years and years ago, and I know plenty of people whose music tastes I deeply respect who count Wilco among their favorite bands of all time, but I somehow missed the boat on this band.

Luckily for me, over the past year I have been subjected to the whole Wilco discography a great deal. Love makes us do funny things, and I now have a deep appreciation for this band of indie royalty thanks to my man. His other obsession – every high-quality recording of every Phish show EVER – is another story…but I digress.

I ran towards The Wang Theater last Tuesday night feeling elated and uncomfortable. I had no idea what to expect, but, from the excitement of the sold-out crowd waiting in alphabetically arranged lines out front, I guessed it would be a good night. Famously anti-corporate, and a fascinating story for any youngster hoping to be involved in the music industry (I recommend at least one viewing of the documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”), Wilco decreed that all tickets to the show be available only through will-call in an effort to “keep ticket prices low, and discourage scalping.” I thought I’d be waiting there forever, but the staff at the Wang is highly efficient – if slightly stuffy – and my photographer, Nolan Yee and I were through in a jiffy.

Inside, I was in awe of the soaring 1920’s interpretation of Rococo architecture. Sure, the Fox Theatre in Atlanta has those twinkling stars, the Moorish swags, and the Egyptian gilt, but The Wang is a true temple of excess. Glittering and huge, the theatre would have felt European except for the crush of Boston boys jostling in the beer line.

We were ushered to our seats (I love when the press is given seats!), and I was immediately drawn in by the solitary, aged figure onstage. Nick Lowe is enjoying a second career in his 60’s, and it’s easy to see why. With his silver hair, his husky, soulful voice, and his unassuming guitar work, he held the whole audience rapt with easy confidence. The songs didn’t hurt matters, either. Mr. Lowe wrote most of the hits I grew up thinking of as “Elvis Costello songs” – did you know that? Because I didn’t.

As he performed “Cruel to be Kind”, “Allison”, and “What’s So Funny (‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding)” part of me initially balked. I’m so used to the 80’s production on these songs that to hear them performed by an (incredibly talented) lone guitarist seemed slightly pathetic. This close-minded reaction evaporated almost immediately, however, because Nick Lowe is an absolute pleasure to hear. Who better to sing those songs, to give them a rich and heartfelt depth, to highlight their poetry and emotion than the man who wrote them himself? I love Elvis Costello, but Nick Lowe makes him look like a bit of a sham.

Mr. Lowe left the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The audience asked for an encore from this opening act. Now, how often does that happen?

Wilco strolled out, and set to work casting a spell on the crowd. A beautiful and strange aural environment began to take shape, note by wavering note, until it built almost imperceptibly into “Art of Almost”, the first song on their new album “The Whole Love”. It was a fitting and beautiful opening for a show that would go on to contain a great deal of the new material.

As I listened to Wilco explore every nuance of “Art of Almost” I was immediately impressed by their impeccable musicianship. For being a band whose description often includes the word “noise,” everything is actually crisp and absolutely perfect – that’s why the noise works. Watching them tease out this song into something epic, I was reminded of a conversation I once had regarding jazz jams. While the jazz in question might sound like a bewildering mess on the surface, just a little deeper lies the incredibly precise mathematics of perfect music, and some of the most highly trained musicians the world has ever known.

Wilco built the first song into a screaming rock apex, and many in the audience could only stand stock still with open mouths. We were amazed. More amazing still is the history here: Wilco was currently personifying The Perfect Rock Band onstage when, years ago, they were lumped into the “alt-country” category. Wilco has always been good, but it’s refreshing when a band evolves into something even better with every album.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any louder; just when we thought we couldn’t handle anymore, the band relented and slipped into “I Might,” the second track off of the new album. Where a moment before I had been marveling at Wilco’s transformation into rock personified, here I found Wilco’s alt-country roots shining through. And it was beautiful, my God, it was beautiful. “I Might” broke our hearts with the classic melancholy Wilco sound. The electric lap steel soared, but nothing shone more brightly than Jeff Tweedy’s perfect acoustic guitar work.

Were they going to play the whole new album straight through? Wilco has such indie superstar status that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, but this is a band that also loves and respects its fans, so, after delving even deeper into “The Whole Love” with “Black Moon,” they granted us a gift in the form of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” After a musically massive opening to the song, the crowd was ecstatic, and sang along with the familiar lyrics joyfully. I love this song, and I have never heard it performed better than on this night. It was epic. With military-esque drums, and heartfelt conviction, Wilco gave us exactly what we wanted, and then proceeded to destroy it with such cataclysmic chaos that I was left feeling floored. I think Mr. Tweedy did in fact succeed in breaking our hearts, and it was awesome in the true sense of the word.

As I listened, amazed, to Nels Cline rip into face-melting guitar solos (the kind one seldom hears outside of really good hair metal, except even better), I thought, “Wilco is like a sonic jam band. They’re the kind of band who, given the opportunity, really could get away with crashing a spaceship into a neighboring sun during their set. You know, just for the epic effect of it.”

Nels brought out a double-necked guitar for the fantastic, infinitely listenable new track “Dawned On Me” and Mr. Tweedy quipped, “I’m telling you – that guitar is going to give you a venereal disease.” They’ve been making music for a long time, and it’s clear they still love it.

As Wilco constructed and deconstructed each song masterfully – from waking dream states to searing noise rock and back – so did they construct and destroy their entire set with precision. We were all taken on a heartbreaking, sometimes noisy, sometimes ethereal journey, and it was fascinating. If I knew nothing about Wilco I probably would have left this show feeling exactly the same as I did. Here is a band almost completely outside the realm of pop, almost completely without hit singles. Here is a band who plays to large, sold-out crowds. Here is a musically perfect band.

Photos by Nolan Yee

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