In which Steve Kolowich, a Wilco devotee, and Ted Scheinman, a recent convert, discuss last night’s show at the Strathmore.
Steve: Ted, you’re a concert-going man. NPR has called Wilco “the best live band in America”; I’ve been talking your ear off about their chops for months; and your girlfriend has been burning CDs like it’s her job to prepare you for the transfiguration you were meant to have undergone last night upon seeing the band play live for the first time. So my first question is: Did it live up to the hype?
Ted: First off, excellent reporting. It’s true that I’ve been rotating Kicking Television on my wagon’s negligible speakers for ca. six months now—partly out of laziness and mostly because of Nels Cline.
Who, incidentally, is a frightening figure to observe from the photo pit. His pinky finger is longer than my sister’s hand.
So, yeah, lots of buildup. But they’re definitely monsters in concert. The band covers so much ground—there’s this loping thing with Tweedy in the middle, strumming unperturbed while Rome burns around him. From a bang-for-your-buck perspective, I can’t bring to mind a band that maxes out the possibilities of live rock in the same way.
Though that acoustic set: dragged on a bit, no?
Steve: That seemed to be the consensus of the audience. You’ll recall that at one point during that set, somebody in the crowd yelled “Turn it up!” Jeff Tweedy’s response was my own: “I think you’re sort of missing the point of this.” The point being that after blasting us with “Bull Black Nova” and other noisy numbers, wouldn’t it be nice to assemble a tiny living room on the foreground of the stage, let everyone have a seat, and take it easy with a warm, acoustic version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”?
The interlude also served as a good foil to what economists call “the diminishing marginal utility of Nels Cline’s face-liquefying shreditude.” I’m as entranced by the man and his alien digits as much as the next guy. But bear in mind that Wilco played three and a half hours; that’s long enough to make anything lose its luster. Watching Cline wield a more delicate weapon for about an hour made it all the more satisfying to watch him rage against second-chair Pat Sansone during “Hoodoo Voodoo” near the end.
You’ve shredded an ax or two in your day, Ted. Who do you think won that battle? (Subquestion: Do you suppose when Woody Guthrie wrote “Hoodoo Voodoo,” he’d have ever imagined it as a platform for a thrashing electric guitar contest?)
Ted: Yeah, the acoustic “Spiders” was definitely a surprise. (And, possibly, yet another instance of Tweedy fucking with us. Remember those Hawaiian windchimes in the coda to “California Stars”? What a cheeky bastard.) As for the chops-fest itself, I know you’re siding with Sansone. My ballot goes to Cline, not just because he played more notes, but because during the call and response, he managed to fill each of his two-measure allotments with something more than nicely phrased blues-isms. Sansone was fantastic. But he sounded suspiciously like a Warren Haynes imitator in a roadhouse blues band. Whereas Nels Cline sounded like Nels Cline.
To answer your subquestion: I think Tweedy’s cracks about Tea-Partiers would have offset Guthrie’s distress at hearing his song so gloriously mangled.
I get what you’re saying, pace-wise; if nothing else, the acoustic hour demonstrated that Wilco applies the same measured-dynamics approach to its concerts as it does to its songs. I also think that the median age of the audience (41?) meant that, when your skull wasn’t getting rocked, you were getting contact sleepiness from the dude next to you wearing earplugs. (Also: Dude, really? Earplugs during the acoustic set? Are you gonna wear those to Jimmy Buffett in August?)
Steve: The dynamic between the band and the audience was amusing. The Strathmore is a beautiful, wood-paneled concert hall nestled deep in suburbia. And while Tweedy might be getting a little old for those skinny jeans he was filling out, I doubt he’s accustomed to crowds that seem to have coordinated a country-club dress code, possibly via phone tree, so he couldn’t help but make jokes about how he was worried they’d break the place and poke fun at our poor showing singing gang-lead on “Jesus, etc.”
Also, some dude in the bathroom told me Rahm Emmanuel was on hand, entourage in tow. I can’t verify that, although that guy in front of us who snapped at me for requesting “Handshake Drugs” may as well have been him. (What, not esoteric enough? Didn’t stop you from dancing to it, friend-o.)
Assuming our audience is not as patient as Wilco’s, we’d better cut to the closer: Highlight of the show?
Ted: Um, standing so close to Tweedy that I could’ve tuned his guitar?
I kid. Probably a tie between that final unraveling in “Via Chicago” and the time Tweedy ripped a Neil Young-once-removed solo for two minutes while standing on one leg. Also, it happened quick, but “I Hate It Here” got a great treatment last night.
How about you, old-timer?
Steve: Gah! I was going to say “Via Chicago.” That song is Wilco’s live show in a nutshell: It’s soft, it’s loud, it goes wild without ever losing control, and it feels like home.
But since you already said it, I’ll go with “I’m The Man That Loves You,” with Glenn Kotche leaping into the beat from atop his bass drum.
Thanks for the chat, Ted. Let’s do this again—maybe loop in Rahm next time.
Photograph by Ted Scheinman