Live: Wilco/Smith Westerns

VERIZON WIRELESS THEATER — 5/6/2011: I have to mention up front that May 6, 2011, ended up being one of the best days of my life thus far, for reasons pretty much unrelated to Wilco and more related to a voicemail I received just before the show…but that’s a story for another time. Let’s just say that in my mental context that evening, Jeff Tweedy & co. could have come out on stage banging trashcans and scraping forks across sheet metal, and I probably still would have enjoyed it. Fortunately, it didn’t go down like that at all.

I’m fairly sure the show was sold out (as just about all post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco shows are, these days), so after braving the line outside, my wife and I got into the venue around halfway into Smith Westerns‘ set. What we heard of them (maybe six or seven songs, total) was enjoyable — jangly, garage-y pop that made me think of The Replacements, or even Teenage Fanclub. Good stuff, and I keep seeing great things regarding Smith Westerns’ most recent album, Dye It Blonde, so I’d make a point to go check these guys out next time they come through.

I’m trying to remember the last time I saw Wilco live. I actually had tickets for their last couple of Houston shows but always got thwarted by responsibilities in my other life (film production/promotion). Horror conventions seemed to always fall on Wilco tour dates — I seem to remember them all being in May, as well.

At any rate, I think it was right after Jay Bennett was ousted but while Leroy Bach was still in the group. Definitely before Nels Cline and Pat Sansone joined. I was pretty stoked to see this iteration of Wilco, as I’d already been fan of Cline’s, and I love this lineup’s interpretation of “legacy” tracks, as captured on Kicking Television.

From the moment Wilco hit the stage to the first few notes of “Ashes of American Flags,” I knew we were in for something special. I am unabashedly a huge fan of Summerteeth-era Wilco, and, until recently, was pretty ambivalent to the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot/A Ghost Is Born period of their output. But damn, I gotta say…I think this is my favorite live version of Wilco to date. Those six guys came on stage and totally wrecked shop.

From subdued stuff like “Ashes…” and “Jesus, etc.” to full-on rockers like “A Shot In The Arm” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You”… It’s the rare band indeed that can take their existing songs and deliver something similar, yet with entirely new and interesting layers, and make it work. For Every. Single. Song. It’s like I was hearing some of these tunes for the first time — even though I listen to these albums pretty regularly.

Of course, Nels Cline’s gonzo guitar freak-outery is a huge part of that, but this is a band that definitely shoots into the stratosphere as the sum of its component parts. In addition to Cline’s six string alchemy, Mikael Jorgenson was doing things behind his piano/synth wall that both defined, assaulted, counterpointed, and weaved in and out of the main melody. Glenn Kotche is fast becoming one of my favorite drummers, ever. That dude is a beast — a highlight of the show for both my wife and I was this lineup’s take on “Via Chicago.” While Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt sang the sweet, near-hushed tones of the verse, Kotche led the rest of the band into an arrhythmic noise freakout that was equal parts genius, startling, and even a little bit creepy (“creepy” being a good thing) when viewed as a whole — and they stopped on a dime, brought it down for a few measures…then promptly did it again, even crazier. Stunning, really.

And watching multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone square off with Cline in a guitar solo-off…pure awesomeness. During all this, Jeff Tweedy usually played the straight man, the calm and melodic eye of this recurring musical maelstrom. You can definitely tell, however, that he guides its course with a sure hand. As cool as all the freakout noise wankery is, the band knows exactly when to hang that stuff out and go nuts and when to step back and let the song and melody take over. It all plastered a big old music-geek grin on my face for pretty much the entire show — except for when I was shaking my ass to “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” during which period I’m sure I looked amazingly cool.

Pulling material most heavily from YHF and AGIB (though trotting out at least one track from every album back to Being There), Wilco played the living shit out of these songs for a good couple hours, then came back and did two encores, finishing it all up with “Hoodoo Voodoo,” from their Mermaid Avenue collaboration with Billy Bragg. Really and truly one of the best and most fun shows in recent memory.

I think my wife Melanie put it best when she said to me, after the show: “Every one of those guys has a huge musical cock, and they aren’t afraid to swing it around…but they know exactly when to put it away, as well.” That pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter perfectly. As for that voicemail I mentioned earlier…stay tuned. END

(Photo by Autumn de Wilde.)

Live review by . Live review posted Sunday, May 22nd, 2011. Filed under Features, Live Reviews.

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