2002 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Wilco Rises To The Challenge

Chicago Band Celebrates New Album’s Success

MINNEAPOLIS — Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has proven that he knows how to overcome obstacles.

Photo: Nonesuch Records

Photo: Nonesuch Records

The singer-songwriter and his band have had a tumultuous year — wading through the months-long completion of an album, record-company politics, filming a cinema verite movie and the departure of his songwriting partner. And yet somehow, he and the group have come out stronger than ever.

The band is currently in the midst of a slow-moving victory lap around the country that celebrates the release of their critically acclaimed new album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and the record’s commercial success. (“Yankee” has reportedly sold close to 300,000 copies, which isn’t bad considering the group has had little radio airplay and almost no attention from MTV.)

And at the Chicago-based group’s sold-out show Tuesday night at Minneapolis’ Orpheum Theater, the streamlined outfit’s performance should be enough to silence most who doubted that they would be able to cut it live playing their old songs or their latest, effects-heavy studio experiments.

This incarnation of Wilco, now a four-piece, is a subtler and more sympathetic group than the Jay Bennett-lineup of the band (Tweedy’s partner Bennett left the band last fall after “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was completed). Although Tweedy promoted longtime touring multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach to fill Bennett’s shoes as the group’s guitarist/keyboard player, the band rarely makes any attempt to replicate the ’60s pop influences that Bennett added to the band’s sound. Instead, while many of the group’s melodies were once crowded by Bennett’s dexterous fingerwork, the band’s music now has more room to breathe and leaves more space for others to shine.

Especially impressive was new drummer Glenn Kotche who was far more inventive in his approach to percussion — making ample use of delicate sounds from a xylophone and even some samples — than his heavy-handed predecessor. He was also surprisingly powerful when it came time to bash at his kit.

Although the band can still rawk like they did in the old days — they devoted the later portion of their two-hour set for that — Tweedy and company concentrated on the more mellow, art-y material from “Yankee” early on.

Melancholic songs like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Radio Cure” were performed with precision. The jean jacket-clad Tweedy, quietly strumming an acoustic guitar, otherwise devoted himself to singing while his bandmates Kotche and Bach juggled instruments to reproduce the sonic twitches of the songs’ studio versions. During the latter song, Kotche was playing with two drumsticks in one hand and a mallet in the other, but was still pounding out John Bonham-sized beats with his bass drum.

Bach’s moment in the spotlight came while he was at the keyboards, adding some soulful piano to “She’s A Jar” to cover for a missing organ, and then tossing in some manic phrases on “Shot In The Arm.” He seemed incapable of playing something wrong.
Tweedy’s only major mistake of the night came when he strayed from the game plan and tried an overly aggressive vocal attack on another song from the new album, “Kamera.” Diving into the song, Tweedy for some reason sang at the high edge of his vocal range. Letting his guitar playing lapse, the sound of Tweedy shouting filled the song and sucked all the warmth out of it. Fortunately, that performance was an exception.

And fortunately for the band, they had an extra accomplice in their quest for perfection. Ex-Jayhawks violinist Jessy Greene, who played on the new album, sat in for many of the songs. Although Greene’s elegant playing featured prominently on the recorded version of “Jesus, etc.,” her best contribution Tuesday night was some sonic levity to the downcast “Reservations.”

When it came time for the boys to break out the electric guitars, which didn’t happen until they got to “Pot Kettle Black” — the ninth song of the set — Wilco tore into the uptempo songs with viciousness. Their mission at this point shifted a bit to prove that they hadn’t gone soft.

Unleashing a series of jagged guitar lines, Tweedy and Bach teamed up to recreate the horn parts “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” but it was on the older tunes that they dusted off like “I’m Always In Love” and “I Got You” that the band got noisier.

Even Tweedy’s grouchy statement of artistic independence, “Misunderstood,” lost none of its crankiness despite being a staple of the group’s live show for the last few years. Tweedy spit out the song’s concluding chant, “thank you all for nothing at all,” with a grimace on his face and brought the song to a climax by screaming the word “nothing” 43 times.

Of course, few in the enthusiastic crowd seemed to have any doubts about the group’s abilities to cut it. Although Tweedy made several comments that suggest he was peeved that many were sitting instead of standing, he was pleased enough with the audience’s responses to bestow some gifts to the faithful.

The band tried out a pair of brand-new songs, tentatively titled “I’m A Wheel” and “Not For The Season,” the former based around a boogie-type guitar riff and lyrics sullied by homonym wordplay. Later, on “Heavy Metal Drummer,” Tweedy asked the crowd to pitch in with some backup vocals during the chorus. For this, he rewarded them with a brief little dance during the song’s breakdown.

“This is one of the circles of hell,” Tweedy cracked, as he was peppered with song requests from the audience during a between-song lull.

But, his true feelings were apparent whenever he took a moment to turn away from his microphone and smiled as he watched his band playing behind him.

Preston School of Industry, which includes a former member of alt-rock heroes Pavement, opened the show with a short set drawing from tracks from their hook-based, first record, “All This Sounds Gas.” The band members joined Wilco onstage on a couple occasions, adding some guitar and percussion help.

Remaining Dates Of Wilco’s Tour:

  • July 31, Madison, Wis.
  • Aug. 2-3, Chicago
  • Aug. 26, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
  • Aug. 28, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • Aug. 29, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  • Aug. 31-Sept. 1, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  • Sept. 2, Seattle
  • Sept. 3, Portland, Ore.
  • Sept. 28, Austin, Texas

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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