Wilco – Stubb’s (Austin, TX)
When a Reprise label source was quoted in Rolling Stone as saying Wilco’s new album, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, was “the side of the road, instead of the middle of the road,” one could imagine Jeff Tweedy thinking, “let us go and stand awhile, we wanna be alone.” Yet on this unseasonably cool and misty Texas night, Wilco was surrounded: The sold-out crowd followed the band on that unbroken line, to a place where the wild things grow.
Despite a recent series of career upheavals, Wilco played with a sense of determination, blasting through 19 songs (including two from the new, yet-to-be-released album) and two encores. They would not be deterred by their divorce from Reprise, the band’s label through three albums. Nor would they be fettered by the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who left the band in early September — the second member to do so this year, as drummer Ken Coomer was dismissed in January. And the band would not be daunted after the September 11 terrorist attacks, instead decided to go ahead with their fall tour.
It was Wilco’s second show without Bennett, and while the four-piece was getting used to new roles (Tweedy often being the only guitarist, utility player Leroy Bach juggling keys and electric guitar), revised arrangements, and the conspicuously empty space onstage, it didn’t prevent them from unfurling a risky set.
Risky would include any cut from Summerteeth, whose elaborate arrangements have to be reconfigured for the live setting. Early in the show, the delicate “She’s A Jar” suffered from bad sound, but by the time “A Shot In The Arm” and “Pieholden Suite” rolled around, the otherworldly keys and psychedelic guitar swept the crowd away.
To prove they can kick out the jams, Wilco balanced their headier material with songs that throb: the bass-heavy “I’m Always In Love” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You”; the fuzzed-out “Outta Mind (Outtasite)”, “I Can’t Stand It”, “Monday”, and “I Got You (At The End Of The Century)”. Wilco tore it up — Kotche flailing his body as if conjuring the spirit of Keith Moon, John Stirratt filling in both harmonies and melodies in his bass lines, and Tweedy and Bach dueling on guitars in a sonic exorcism.
Much to the delight of the front two-thirds of the venue (the back third was sprinkled with people chatting on cell phones, a heinous concert trend), the band played a poignant version of “Should’ve Been In Love” and the singalong favorite “Passenger Side”, both from their 1995 debut A.M.
Midway through the show, Tweedy, who hadn’t uttered much all night, quietly told the crowd, “Thanks for downloading our record.” In a populist gesture, Wilco is streaming Yankee Foxtrot Hotel on their website, www.wilcoweb.com, while waiting for another record deal. They played two cuts from the record — an infectious, poppy number which, although it didn’t straddle the median, certainly sounded single-worthy to the crowd dancing in front; and a dense, spooky ballad that veered off the shoulder with guitar skronking, barreling piano riffs, and eerie clunking sounds. The sonic subtleties, though unfamiliar, were amazing.
Wilco’s longevity depends on its willingness to take risks. Some experiments succeed, others fail, but Wilco, who long have shaken off the expectations of Uncle Tupelo fans, don’t underestimate their audience. If this show was any indication, their fans welcome the challenge.