Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: John Margaretten
Wilco with White Denim :: 01.28.12 :: San Jose Civic Auditorium :: San Jose, CA
A gallery of photos from the 02.01.12 Davis, CA show at the Mondavi Center For The Performing Arts is below review!
While most of the polite, clean cut crowd waiting outside the recently reopened San Jose Civic were there for Wilco, I had come primarily to see handpicked opener White Denim, simply one of the fastest evolving, fully switched-on young bands working today. While this Austin, TX-based quartet play very different music than the headliner, there’s a shared spirit of exploration and openness that marks both bands which makes the pairing just good sense, an acknowledgement of congruities and a nice lil’ gift to Wilco fans, most of whom seemed to be hearing White Denim for the first time this night.
|White Denim :: 02.01.12 :: by John Margaretten|
The band tiptoed in with “Street Joy,” taking advantage of an audience of inclined to shut up and listen to music after years of leaning in to hear what Jeff Tweedy and company had to say. The tenderness and rising ache of this standout from last year’s stellar D album moved into a spacey whoosh, controls set directly for the heart of the sun, and within two pieces White Denim had already illustrated one of their greatest strengths – a head-scratching knack for switching gears swiftly and seamlessly. James Petralli (vocals, guitar), Joshua Block (drums), Steven Terebecki (bass, vocals) and Austin Jenkins (guitar) moved with a strange, compelling mixture of youthful herky-jerky energy and limber, quasi-athletic musicianship. There’s almost a prog-rock ethos at work but infused with punk/post-punk attitude. By the third tune, the four-piece were interlocking and lunging with such empathy that the whole enterprise ceased to be a compilation of elements and simply breathed as a whole, a rock ‘n’ roll animal with thick fur and glimmering teeth.
There is no doubting the hunger inside White Denim, and a coveted opening slot for one of America’s biggest bands is precisely where they belong right now. More than half a decade of honing their sound, bouncing around indie labels, and trudging from SXSW to Timbuktu in search of an audience has produced a band, as witnessed in San Jose, on the verge of their next evolutionary leap – a move that is likely to take them from the clubs they’ve largely inhabited into small theatres and beyond. At the moment, their music is struggling a bit to adapt to the larger spaces this Wilco tour finds them playing, but it was exciting to see them realize the potential reach their music possesses in real time at the Civic. Mixing together scraps of Tropicalia, tasty soul jazz licks and propulsive Velvet Underground-isms, they showed how familiar elements can be repurposed into original shapes. And just when one would think they’d settled into big groove, an unexpected curve would whiff by our ears, one suddenly tossed into, say, the updated 60s pop of “No Real Reason” (a boffo ballad off the recently issued Takes Place In Your Work Place EP) or taken deep into the recesses of burly group jamming. White Denim is a trip worth taking, and the boisterous round of applause as they finished their set spoke to a growing number of folks ready to jump on board wherever they might be traveling.
|White Denim :: 02.01.12 :: by John Margaretten|
So, what about Wilco? Having never seen them play outside of a festival set at Bonnaroo a number of years ago, I honestly had no real expectations despite the countless glowing reviews of friends and critics firmly under the band’s sway. While always admiring of their studio work, I’d never made the leap to actual fandom, always kept at bay by Tweedy’s thin, modernized Dylan voice and something in the lyrics that just never snagged my emotional center. That said, I was assured by folks I trust on such matters that seeing Wilco live would reveal their true glory. That’s a lot for any band to live up to but I tamped down high expectations and just listened intently as they took the stage.
|Wilco :: 02.01.12 :: by John Margaretten|
Opener “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)” is a patient build, very much the child of Dylan at his expansive, poetic 1960s best, and featured some of the most controlled, lovely playing I have ever heard. Seriously, it and all that followed showcased some of the most beautiful, technically savvy, intuitive musicianship I’ve ever witnessed in my long years of concert-going. While the source material and the focal point within Wilco simply may not be my personal bag, there is no denying that the players in this band are phenomenal, each serving the songs with near-penitent devotion and focus, producing an ineffable glow to Wilco’s music in San Jose - something that can’t really be pinned down in clumsy words.
More than the actual content/subject matter of the lyrics holds sway. There’s little doubt that Tweedy and his cohorts are striving towards larger understanding, the “rock show” used as a form of community building that pushes towards common understanding of our shared imperfections - which is sort of funny coming from such a thoroughly professional production, where things began right on time and unfolded with practiced grace in every element – lighting, stage design, sound. There was NOTHING imperfect about this night, which at times made certain numbers feel a touch too rehearsed, too familiar, too comfortable. For all the echoes of Bob’s freewheeling days – down to the blazing musicianship of dudes like Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – Wilco came off as all-pro, all-the-time to me. Maybe because I’m not part of the cult, I’m less charmed by Tweedy’s quirks and between song banter, which mostly struck me as vaudeville moderne, a stage device an intensely personal artist has mastered in order to ply his trade. And I’m not saying I wasn’t charmed along with everyone else in the Civic, only that my years of watching countless rockers at work gives me an instinct for what’s really happening in the moment and what comes from a well-studied playbook. This band is WELL aware of the Pavlovian bells to ring on faves like “Handshake Drugs” and “Jesus Etc.” – shaking them loud and clear this night – but for my own tastes, I kinda wish they’d dance on the edge a bit more like new one “Art of Almost,” which lit up the beginning of their set with Radiohead worthy electricity and chrome-plated futurism, or even the sprightly Nick Lowe/Rockpile-esque pop of “I Might,” which avoided the mid-tempo pacing they favor on a few too many songs. However, this is a band that thrives by being comforting and it's unlikely they'll be toying with that in any substantial way in the days ahead.
|Jeff Tweedy :: 02.01.12 :: by John Margaretten|
In the end, walking back to my car as the encore wrapped, I came to the conclusion that Wilco is undeniably one of the best outfits operating today, as classy and well formed as anything America has kicked up since rock’s first great swell in the 50s/60s. It’s unlikely I’ll become a fan anytime soon but it’s hard to imagine anyone with an appetite for fundamentally perfect rock not digging a great deal about this band.
San Jose Setlist
One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend), Art Of Almost, I Might, Bull Black Nova, Side With The Seeds, California Stars, Red-Eyed and Blue, I Got You (At The End Of The Century), Born Alone, (Was I) In Your Dreams, You Are My Face, Impossible Germany, Box Full Of Letters, I'm Always In Love, Jesus, Etc., Capitol City, Handshake Drugs, War On War, Dawned On Me, A Shot in the Arm. [Encore]: Whole Love, Walken, I'm A Wheel
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