Wilco | 05.14.08 | Lawrence, KS

Words & Images by: Nathan Rodriguez

Wilco :: 05.14.08 :: Downtown :: Lawrence, KS

05.14.08 (before Wilco began) :: Lawrence, KS
The last time beer flowed on the streets of downtown Lawrence, Jayhawk fans were celebrating Mario’s Miracle as Kansas went on to win the national championship. A little more than five weeks later, there was still cause for celebration: Wilco playing an outdoor show in the middle of downtown at 10th & New Hampshire.

There was no traditional “venue” but rather an open space that was converted into a scaled down Wakarusa – a Wilco-rusa, if you will. A local vendor set up shop slinging pizza slices, while a beer booth remained bustling throughout the evening.

The Retribution Gospel Choir opened. While not knowing anything about them, I quickly formed a general impression. A rock trio from Duluth, Minnesota wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. The band played generally inoffensive, dirt-under-the-nails rock against a simple backbeat, sounding like a poor man’s Crazy Horse. The crowd seemed ambivalent, with those close to the stage paying attention while others further away negotiated conversations over the music. After about 45 minutes, Retribution Gospel Choir left the stage. Concertgoers streamed in from down the block, quickly adding to the few hundred people inside. The weather was ideal, in the upper 60s with clear skies and a subsiding breeze.

Shortly after 8 p.m., Wilco assembled, selecting the buoyant, ambling rhythm of Sky Blue Sky‘s “Walken” to open the show. The band was on-point, drifting next into “Hummingbird” before skidding into the synth-heavy preamble of “Shot In The Arm.” The techno intro was pierced by the clarity of Mikael Jorgensen‘s piano work, while drummer Glenn Kotche bid his time to enter the fray. A propulsive beat anchored the song, which ended with an impressive sonic convergence checkered with electronic scratching effects.

Nels Cline & Jeff Tweedy :: 05.14 :: Lawrence, KS
By now, most of the crowd had started to gather around the stage. It wound up being a comfortable mixture of Boomers, Gen-Xers with toddlers and college students entering summer vacation. But, in addition to the 2,000 or so paying concertgoers (read: suckers), there were at least another 500 or so onlookers on neighboring balconies and rooftops, lined up along the fence and scattered throughout a three-story parking garage that happened to offer a direct, elevated view of the stage from about 100 yards away.

The crystal-clear acoustics lent a warm, intimate feel to the show, and may have contributed to a more talkative Jeff Tweedy. A melancholy beginning to “At Least That’s What You Said” met a stomping clash of percussion. Kotche was stellar, establishing a comfortable pace and chasing the guitar, accenting riffs with a clash of the cymbals. “You Are My Face” followed, with beautiful harmonies that vaguely recalled CSNY. The band let the song breathe, and the beginning was spacious enough to double-check that all six members were still onstage. As it progressed, a yin-yang was established with the spacious cohesion of the beginning spliced and alternated with slices of filthy rock. A plaintive piano solo was later joined by ethereal guitar work, signaling the close to the song, which finished with a smattering of cymbals.

Daylight began to fade, and Tweedy took notice of the hundreds of onlookers in the parking garage: “I see a lot of people illegally downloading this concert. Yeah, I’m talkin’ about you guys! We’re gonna pass around a hat. Yeah, we see you! You too, old timers!” He shifted his gaze and tone to the people directly in front of him, saying, “Actually, don’t YOU all feel ripped off for paying?”

Tweedy & Stirratt :: 05.14 :: Lawrence, KS
“Pot Kettle Black” brought a few cheers with the line “Every song is a comeback / Every moment is a little bit better,” but proved to be a better set-up for “Impossible Germany.” A highlight of the show, Kotche’s no-frills drum work provided an accommodating platform for guitarist Nels Cline to venture off a bit. One by one, the rhythm guitars kicked in and all three locked in around a single theme. Cline then broke things apart with some ridiculous fretwork before building the song to a crescendo.

“Couldn’t be a more perfect night,” said Tweedy, “I think we got lucky!” He noted all the songs in the set were online requests, but said before “Say You Miss Me” that “only one person requested this next song, so now is your time to hit the Port-a-Pottys.” He laughed it off, adding, “It’s actually a great song” before he led them into the pleading rocker from Being There. After noting that Cline recently acquired a new guitar in Des Moines, “Handshake Drugs” allowed him to justify the purchase with some impressive work creating frayed edges around the beat for an apropos frazzled effect.

Tweedy commented that he “got run over by a mountain bike” while hiking along the Kansas River earlier in the day before the band eased into “Jesus, Etc.” The tender, dimly textured tune featured the haunting chorus, “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape / Singing sad, sad songs.” Cline took “Too Far Apart” to the next level with a frenzied solo. The song ended with Tweedy’s distant vocals repeating, “Couldn’t be any closer to you,” several times. Nearing the end, he paused to cough, deliver the line and finished by adding a falsetto tongue-in-cheek assessment: “Nailed it.”

“Theologians” offered an off-kilter romp, ending in a sea of reverb and transitioning to the gritty swagger of “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” After another pick from the archives with “Kingpin,” Wilco launched into the aptly-titled “Kicking Television,” which inhabits Television‘s sonic realm with staccato guitars.

After taking a bow, the band reappeared for an encore that was nearly half as long as the set. “Misunderstood” found some soft vocals murmured from the crowd, after which Tweedy advised, “If we play ‘Heavy Metal Drummer,’ well, we played it last summer in Columbia, Missouri and a girl actually took her shirt off. I’m just sayin’…” He was greeted with a burst of booing for making a comparison to the University of Missouri, and responded with a knowing grin, “I don’t know if you guys are like, rivals or anything.”

Wilco :: 05.14 :: Lawrence, KS
While the main set was very good, the encore was flat-out great. “Passenger Side” was a welcome treat, but “California Stars” was a perfect fit for the evening, with relaxed pipe organ and light, honky-tonk flourishes adding texture to the gorgeous pop ballad. A short but stellar four minutes, it wound up being another highlight of the evening.

Tweedy then toyed with the crowd, “You have time for some more? We have nowhere to be ’til tomorrow night.” An impassioned “Hate it Here” followed the “What am I gonna do” refrain, echoing John Lennon’s pleading, stretched-thin vocals on “God.”

Tweedy addressed the crowd again, saying, “We’ve got a curfew tonight, so no more talking!” They leapt into “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which brought a frenzied response. It seemed a bit bass-heavy in the first half, but wound up being a solid rendition. After the song, Tweedy broke his promise, saying, “I’m really proud of you, Lawrence. No one took their shirt off. Don’t resort to that sort of objectification. I’m proud of you. I mean, it would have been NICE, but I guess Columbia loves us more.” The crowd booed heavily, as Tweedy dryly acknowledged, “I always say the wrong things.” Within seconds he glanced up after apparently being flashed, announcing, “You really do love us! Oh my God! It’s a 12-year old? Gonna get arrested for that, but thank you so much!”

The start-stop rocker “The Late Greats” was then paired with a tasty “Red-Eyed and Blue,” but it was the final two songs of the night that were particularly noteworthy. “I Got You” was a slam-fest, with raucous power chords matched by the racket coming from the drum kit. Cline had a hot solo before breaking down to the drum roll from “Heavy Metal Drummer” and then hopping back to polish off “I Got You.” They had a seamless transition to the show closer, “Hoodoo Voodoo.” The lyrics seem a byproduct of free association but the groove is infectious enough to make it a moot point. The song gained intensity with inspired, fiery guitar bursts that led to a minute-long duel before converging and leading back to the chorus. The song and the show ended with a bang at the stroke of 10:30.

Wilco al fresco wound up being one of the more enjoyable outdoor concert experiences in recent memory. Their playing at times flirts with effortlessness but it is that relaxed and crisp sound that defines their talent. They are, to paraphrase Mike Greenberg of Mike & Mike in the Morning, “sneaky hot, like Tina Fey.” Their greatness may not necessarily knock you out on impact but after awhile it becomes difficult to ignore and eventually becomes pretty damn impressive.

Wilco :: 05.14.08 :: Lawrence, KS

Wilco :: 05.14.08 :: Downtown :: Lawrence, KS
Walken, Hummingbird, A Shot In The Arm, At Least That’s What You Said, You Are My Face, Pot Kettle Black, Impossible Germany, She’s A Jar, Say You Miss Me, Handshake Drugs, War On War, Via Chicago, Jesus, Etc., Too Far Apart, Theologians, I’m The Man Who Loves You, Kingpin, I’m A Wheel
E: Misunderstood, Passenger Side, California Stars, Hate It Here, Heavy Metal Drummer, The Late Greats, Red-Eyed And Blue, I Got You (At The End Of The Century), Hoodoo Voodoo

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