The last time that I’d seen Wilco perform was in 2007 at the Fox Theater in Detroit, in which, with a 5,000 person capacity, is one of the largest theaters in the country. The Royal Oak Music Theater, by comparison, has room for roughly 1,500 people, making it a far more intimate venue. I was grateful for the opportunity to see them in such a setting as the band sold out the 10,000 seat UIC Pavilion in their hometown of Chicago for a performance this Autumn. From the time I’d first seen Wilco in 2003 to now, they have exploded commercially, building on the successes of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the subsequent releases of A Ghost is Born, and Sky Blue Sky. The band’s latest offering, Wilco (the Album), was released a month ago and hit #4 on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart. Whenever artists achieve such success, their live performances can suffer due to a large proportion of the audience being neophytes to their music, or because they The audience on hand in Royal Oak that night looked as one might expect from a band whose music inundated the television airwaves, courtesy of Volkswagen, who use the tunes to hawk their automobiles. Sky Blue Sky was also sold in Starbucks stores, and between them and VW, it’s no wonder that the crowd ranged from college kids to couples in their 60s. The younger, most hardcore fans were at the front, and the demographic shifted as one got further back from the stage, with some of the older fans back around the soundboard.
I’m often at shows that I really wish were just a little bit louder. This was not the case that night, as Wilco’s show was really quite loud – I shoot a lot of concerts and have learned that if I don’t wear earplugs, I’ll probably regret it in another 10 years. Even with my earplugs in, it still seemed kind of loud, and I only saw one other person (a man in his 60s, who was dancing harder than anybody else) wearing earplugs.
Coming out onto stage to the sound of the “Price of Right” theme song, Wilco proved to the sold out house , that the price was indeed right, as their barnburner of a performance, replete with two long encores, was widely considered to be among their best performances of late.
Starting out with the title track off of their newest, self-titled, release ,Wilco (the Song), Tweedy and company made no mistake about who was up on stage or that they were there to rock the house. I’ve often found with Wilco that most who dis or dismiss their music, at the time it’s released, find themselves years later eating their words. While Wilco (the Album) may not have had the groundbreaking recognition that accompanied 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I’ve found a number of tracks on Wilco (the Album) that are instant classics in my mind, if nowhere else. Wilco (the Song) is a rather grandiose, sweet, and some might say megalomaniacal gesture by Tweedy to his fans, or so it would seem by the lyrics.
The songs Black Bull Nova and You Are My Face from the last two albums followed and provided yet more examples of why Tweedy is considered by many, particularly his fans, to be one of the most talented songwriters of his generation as meter and metaphor combine to give the listeners a unique perspective on a common circumstance. As the opening notes of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart rang out, the audience cheered their approval, and by the end of the song the audience was to be heard singing the chorus/title over Tweedy as the band’s tight playing overwhelmed the vocals in their trademark sonic deterioration into cacophony and noise. The song Shot in the Arm off their 1999 album Summerteeth followed, and is among my favorites of their earlier tunes. With driven, repetitive lyric lines backed by Glenn’s Kotche’s clashing drums combined with guitar noise, a light and airy keyboard line played by keyboard player and multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen, Shot in the Arm makes for a fun time, and the audience ate it up.
The band acknowledged that it was almost 7 years ago to the day that Wilco last played the Royal Oak Music Theatre. Tweedy remarked that that was the day that Jason broke his ankle at the same Theatre, although he never mentioned who Jason was, before launching into a solid performance of Handshake Drugs. After A Magazine Called Sunset, on which John Stirratt’s bass pounded at the audience, Tweedy remarked, “That was A Magazine Called Sunset, I don’t know why it gets requested all the time – I don’t even think it’s on a record – is it on a record?” to which the fanboys and girls in the audience screamed a vehement, “NO!” and Tweedy replied, “Weird. . . “ before the band started playing again.
After finishing the song Deeper Down, also off the new album, Tweedy commented that the audience was so cute that it was like having the old crowd back together. He said that the Royal Oak show was like a reunion, and they’ve been playing to these big, ugly crowds (who were cute in their own way and had personality). My guess is that Wilco has been getting a lot bigger commercially in the last few years and has been playing and headlining a number of music festivals all over the world. This was the last real Wilco theater show to a real Wilco audience on the American leg of the tour before heading across the pond for dates in Europe.
Going back and forth 10 years in their album repertoire from Summerteeth to Wilco (the Album), the song with guitarist Nels Cline playing repetitive riffs and Tweedy jamming feedback, along with Pat Sansone’s contributions, as one of the band’s multi-instrumentalists, they closed Impossible Germany before starting into I’ll Fight off of Wilco (the Album) – probably my favorite song on the new album as it invokes the imagery of a soldier going to war to fight and die leaving a sweetheart back home to mourn the loss. With Wilco’s borderline alt-country roots, I can’t help but think of a civil war battle scene, although the lyrics could apply to any place or age. Apparently, others in the crowd were also fond of the song as a number of voices could be heard singing along.
Wilco closed out the 90 minute set with a rousing performance of Hummingbird that left the Royal Oak Music Theatre’s audience singing together, ‘Remember to remember me, standing still in your past, floating fast like a hummingbird.’ After only a few minutes offstage, Wilco was back for an encore. When I heard the band playing Poor Places off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a huge smile appeared on my face, as in 2003, when I really GOT Wilco for the first time, this was the breakthrough song for me. Weird and wonderful, and it was clear from the audience’s reaction that I wasn’t the only fan of the song as it descended into an increasingly layered sonic Napoleon over the crowd with the introduction of each part. Closing out a 3 song encore that included a sweet Reservations, with Spiders (Kidsmoke), Wilco again made a fan out of me, as I’m not the biggest fan of extended bouts of noise and feedback with a little backing rhythm, but more and more I actually see and appreciate the true jam quality of this, and having seen the song performed a few different times, have a much greater appreciation for the nuances of performance that each of the members brings to the table, before going back to the harder rocking, driving line of the song. I’m a big fan of live music, improvisation, and jamming in all different genres, but I’ve often found it difficult to embrace some of the noise.
Several times over the course of the performance, including during Spiders (Kidsmoke) and Kingpin, Tweedy exhorted the crowd to participate in the form hand clapping and call and response. Usually this consisted of him telling the crowd that the cool thing to do is to clap, or that when they’re old, they’d think back, and among their regrets, would be thinking they were too cool to clap along with the Wilco show. Such was much of the dynamic between the band (although really, mostly Tweedy) and the audience.
The final encore (more of a set really) pulled largely from their earlier work including Heavy Metal Drummer, and a performance of California Stars where a number of women from the audience were invited up on stage to sing the chorus. Rounding out the encore with Hoodoo Voodo, and Kingpin, there was a lot of hand clapping going on. Although I’m not the biggest Wilco fan out there, the band has shown, time and time again, over the years, that they are leading the way in modern rock music. I think that any notion of ‘genre’ has a lot more to do with marketing and getting songs on the radio than anything that actually has to do with the music itself.
Set 1: The Price Is Right theme music intro > Wilco (the song), Bull Black Nova, You Are My Face, IATTBYH, A Shot in the Arm, One Wing, Handshake Drugs, A Magazine Called Sunset, Deeper Down, Jesus, etc.,. In A Future Age, Impossible Germany, I’ll Fight,
Summerteeth, Sonny Feeling, Hate It Here, Can’t Stand It, Walken, I’m The Man Who Loves You, Hummingbird
Encore 1: Poor Places > Reservations > Spiders (Kidsmoke),
Encore 2: You Never Know, Heavy Metal Drummer, California Stars (w/female fan choir), Red-Eyed and Blue > I Got You (At The End of the Century) > Hoodoo Voodoo, Kingpin, I’m A Wheel