If you’re not already a Wilco fan, chances are Sam Jones’s documentary I am Trying to Break your Heart (www.wilcofilm.com) isn’t going to convert you. Lately, Wilco converts are born during live shows, and I’d guess that the two sold-out concerts at the Warfield Theater on September 6th and 7th means San Francisco has discovered what it means to worship at the altar of Jeff Tweedy and Co. And just in time. In my eight-plus years of being a Wilco fan, I have never heard them sound better: more sharp and steady, more plaintive and powerful, more raw. It’s a good time to be Wilco, and it’s a good time to be a Wilco fan.
But who knew they would sound this good? Wilco’s challenges over the last two years would cripple lesser bands. As written in the JamBase preview, Wilco fought and won major artistic and legal battles last year, both externally with Reprise Records, who asked them to change their new album and then dropped the band when Tweedy refused; and internally, as growing incompatibilities between Tweedy and guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett forced Tweedy to ask Bennett to leave the band, not long after the departure of their founding drummer Ken Coomer and the arrival of their new one, Glenn Kotche. Director Sam Jones, who originally set out to make a standard "rockumentary," was privy to these changes, and the resulting movie gives a good account of a band at a crossroads: new label, new album, new lineup, new songs. The shows at the Warfield are the happy ending you’ll look for. Can I say it enough? Wilco has never sounded better.
I have no doubt that Wilco’s April album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will top many critics’ year-end-best lists. It will certainly top mine: it’s a powerful, experimental work that deconstructs simple folk songs adding what Tweedy calls “holes,” which he haltingly describes as “wide open spaces between what’s supposed to be the music part,” and “sonic weight,” namely through feedback loops, a mess of percussion, radio transmissions and lots of static. It’s a complex, layered work, and the film does a good job of showing how Wilco actually builds these songs, working fully through a melody (folksy, or plaintive, or rocking) only to break it down, strip it apart and piece it back together in different ways. “There’s no reason not to destroy it,” Tweedy says in the movie, and the band thrived on the freedom and challenge of a self-engineered album, recorded all alone in their Chicago loft.
Also present during the loft sessions is the constant strain and disagreement between Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy. Bennett is portrayed as a vital but mercurial member of the band, hyper-intelligent but over-intellectualizing, and constantly striving to be “understood.” The Tweedy/Bennett falling-out is a painful piece to watch. The band sounds good with Jay, but better without him (Jeff calls their three guitar sound “obsolete”). Jay sounds awful without the band and is angry and bitter to boot. I was left wondering how much those tensions contributed to the brilliance of the album. There’s a lot of anger and sadness on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and a lot going on underneath the surface. But I was anxious to hear how the album sounds without Bennett.
In fact, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the kind of album that’s so good on its own that it makes you wonder how the songs will transfer to live performances at all. But to their credit as a band who continues to challenge themselves and branch out, Wilco has focused less in the past few years on recreating a studio sound in a live setting, and more on creating unique live versions of their songs altogether. Tweedy has re-arranged many old favorites from early albums like Being There and Summerteeth, and is playing them live with a passion and power absent from the earlier recordings. Wilco has also recently begun allowing tapers at all concerts, not because of varied setlists – Friday night and Saturday night differed by only a few songs – but because of this reinvigoration of old material into completely new songs.
Case in point: they’re playing fewer songs from the Mermaid Avenue albums (though both nights featured a “California Stars” encore, replete with disco ball), instead choosing to play newer songs and/or reinterpret the old ones that could most effectively showcase their tight new foursome and the forceful, experimental sound Glenn Kotche’s drumming brings to the band. You can always count on Tweedy to press forward as an artist, and to bring the band members along with him but Kotche - who layers a forward, aggressive style with a range of percussive accessories: bells, xylophones, tambourines, maracas, and a tube that allows him to control the pressure (and thus the timbre) of his drums by blowing into it – has really forced the band to push their edges, with Tweedy stepping up to lead guitar and Bach and Stirratt each taking a larger roll as well. They’re still as brilliant and angst-ridden as ever: concert staples such as “A Shot in the Arm,” “War on War,” “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” are still played regularly, but they sound sharper, brighter and better.
Many of the most successful reinventions are from Being There, Wilco’s second album and first breakthrough. The movie showed Tweedy playing some solo dates (including the Great American Music Hall last year) where he worked out these new arrangements on his own. Backed by the full band (in addition to Tweedy and Kotche, Wilco features bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach), songs like “Sunken Treasure” and “Misunderstood” become meandering and mournful, as notes are stretched out for painful emphasis and Tweedy wails in his plaintive drawl, then instantly they become angry and irrational, with Tweedy screaming the apocalyptic ending “Nothing! Nothing! Nothing at all!” and Bach and Stirratt jumping madly, while Kotche is about to drum through the stage.
Equally ecstatic was the Saturday night version of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” where Tweedy teasingly pleaded with the audience to join in on a chorus of “Woo-ooo, Haiii!” that sounded as if it were stolen straight from Axl Rose’s mouth, circa 1987. These days Tweedy’s embracing the rock-star thing more and more; he looks happier than ever as he banters with the audience, shares stories, and wails away on his guitar with what seems to be a newfound confidence. Both shows also contained five or six new songs (the most fully realized being “Not For the Seasons”) which blend Wilco’s background in balladry with their fresh power. For a tour that’s still ostensibly promoting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the range of reinvented songs, new tunes still being worked out, and lack of crowd favorites (Tweedy insisted “If I’m going to play ‘Passenger Side,’ you’re going to have to sing it, because I don’t want to”) speak to a band on a creative upswing.
Perhaps my favorite part of I am Trying to Break your Heart is right at the beginning when the band’s manager Tony Margherita says that there’s “a feeling that this is sort of ‘the moment’” for the band, and that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could be their seminal album. It’s standard manager-speak, and Tweedy says later that everyone’s always said something like that when they’ve put out an album: "this is going to be the big one." The great thing about Wilco, though, is that each time they’ve put out an album, it has been “the big one,” with each record more evolutionary, beautiful and challenging than the last. What’s even more exciting is that they’re finally living up to that recorded promise on a live stage. “Misunderstood” sums it up perfectly and Tweedy will scream it to the rafters: Wilco still loves rock 'n' roll.
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