THE SCHLANSKY FILES: Wilco Rocks Hammerstein Ballroom, ME

-

The sky was blue. The air was hot. Wilco was in New York City, promoting their new album, Sky Blue Sky.  I was there to hear the new songs live. I had a hunch they would slay me.

Opening band Low left me wanting to hear their cover of the oft-covered “Hey Ya.” Branded “slow-core” by some in the press, they were by no means unexciting. According to Wikipedia, people often sit on the floor during their shows because it’s hard to stand during all that slowness.

The sky was blue. The air was hot. Wilco was in New York City, promoting their new album, Sky Blue Sky.  I was there to hear the new songs live. I had a hunch they would slay me.

Opening band Low left me wanting to hear their cover of the oft-covered “Hey Ya.” Branded “slow-core” by some in the press, they were by no means unexciting. According to Wikipedia, people often sit on the floor during their shows because it’s hard to stand during all that slowness.

At nine o’clock, Chicago’s finest hit the stage. I’d already seen what they’d dubbed their “best gig ever” at Irving Plaza in June of ‘04, during the Ghost is Born-era. And my favorite Wilco-going experience would still have to be their 1999 Irving show, my first, when they were still alt.-country darlings.  At one show I saw, at the Bowery Ballroom not long after 9/11, they were restrained and almost embarrassingly quiet. “Dangerously quiet,” as Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay once quipped.

But tonight, I am deaf, dumb and blinded by Wilco…ear splitting feedback, singeing strobe lights that head straight for my eyeballs…Hey, you may be blinded by the light, but that’s rock and roll. That’s why you sold your soul. To achieve a little grace.

It’s interesting to reflect on where the band has ended up since the filming of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the 2002 documentary which captures the creation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  In it, band leader Jeff Tweedy tells soon to be ousted guitarist Jay Bennett that for Wilco, the days of long guitar solos may be over. Flash forward to today, and Wilco is almost as famous for their jammy guitar freakouts as they are for the rock and roll swindle they pulled on Warner Brothers record execs to get YHF released. Kind of funny how things work out.

Dating back to Ghost‘s “Hell is Chrome,” with its mournful harmonies, people started comparing Wilco to The Band. Watching them tonight, I finally begin to agree. Their instrumental interplay is an organic, multi-layered beast, and everyone is capable of filling multiple roles. Little things stand out above the din: bassist John Stirratt’s backing vocals in “Jesus, Etc.” (an immaculate back up man, more so than Richie Sambora or Mike Mills or anyone, save David Rawlings), Glenn Kotche’s manic drum fills in “Hate It Here,” lead guitarist Nels Cline’s numerous flights of fretwork fancy, and the comic mugging of Peter Pan-esque, jack-of-all-trades Pat Sansone.  Hell of a band, that Wilco.

The new songs do, indeed, slay live. And the crowd is more than appreciative. During the shape-shifting “Shake It Off,” the line “so many hearts in one place” gets cheers. Interesting. That’s some abstract thinking on the audience’s part. (It’s not exactly, “They all come from New York City!”)  Highlights include the bittersweet “Impossible Germany,” the song many in the crowd seemed to want to hear the most. Its line about “not listening” is self-actualized live, more so than on record, and when Tweedy turns it around and sings, “Now I know/you’ll be listening,” it’s a nice moment.

Tweedy is also a bit of a standup comic as well as a standup guy, like Jason Bateman and Michael J. Fox (who he resembles in an offhand way). In between songs, a macramé owl descends from the ceiling, the band’s lone stage prop. Tweedy solicits more macramé from the audience.  “Have you got any?  If you do, mail it to us. Just put ‘Wilco, Chicago.’ It’ll get to us.”  During “Hummingbird,” the once stationary singer busts a number of moves, doing an athletic, energetic routine with the mic stand.

Encore time. “This song goes out to all of you. It is our hit song,” Tweedy jokes, introducing “Heavy Metal Drummer” (it’s a joke because Wilco has never had a hit song). People sing along, regardless of whether they ever played Kiss covers “beautiful and stoned” themselves. (Hey, I’m not one to talk, neither have I.) At this point, many in the mezzanine fell victim to the white man’s boogie. I think back to Jeff’s earlier comment about feeling guilty playing the down-tempo “Via Chicago” earlier in the evening. Is Wilco resigned to being a good times band now? I hate good times. (Not really, but my favorite Wilco songs will always be the sad ones.)  As Wilco commercials pimp Volkswagen Beetles on TV, the mostly harmless crowd of corporate rockers and indie rock nerds in the audience sing along back at the show. Looks like I have to share my favorite band.

For their final song they play the angular German rock of “I’m A Wheel”…”I’m gonna turn on you, turn on you, TURN ON YOU.”   Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.


Wanna hear the show for yourself?  Download it at Nyctaper.com


Popular Posts