October 9, 2009
Better Than: Anything?
Two songs into the set came the climactic moment: "A Shot in the Arm," off 1999's Summerteeth. Pure rumble and all rapture, the sound of a band falling apart as it comes together. Melody melts into noise--music as mercury--but nobody ever loses their place, not Nels Cline, machine-gunning from his guitar teensy bleeps and thunderous roars; not Jeff Tweedy, who's inching ever closer toward being the soul singer he's always imagined himself to be; and not the rest of the band, which uses a jackhammer for the detail work. We're still in the second song here, and by the time it wraps up one wonders: What next? How to top that?
But this is Wilco, which was just getting warmed up: Twenty-five songs left to go, with one dating all the way back to A.M. ("Casino Queen," back when Tweedy was still interested in Gram Parsons's old gig) to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's cast-offs ("Cars Can't Escape"). Not to mention the between-song banter: the playful jab at tapers who nitpick setlists; Tweedy affectionately teasing the audience member struggling to harmonize in tune; the frontman's swapping of his sweaty H&M pearl-snap-up for a gold lamé button-down during the "sartorial interlude."
The Palladium, sold out and jammed up tight on a brisk Friday night, might as well have been your backyard, by a campfire; Wilco loves you, baby.
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I first saw the band 14 years ago, when it played South by Southwest on the heels of Uncle Tupelo's sudden, shocking demise. Back then, it was a shambling little country-rock outfit augmented by Max Johnston's fiddle--the Replacements reimagining Exile on Main Street. Then Tweedy went further back: Pet Sounds listened to during a leisurely stroll down Abbey Road.
And the past remains our final destination: Wilco's still very much a 1970s rock 'n' roll band, maybe every 1970s rock 'n' roll band: a little bit of Kraftwerk; a small dose of the Eagles; a smidgen of the Who; a dash of Devo; a touch of Thin Lizzy and T. Rex; a nod to Crosby, Stills and Nash; maybe even a wee bit o' Emerson, Lake and Palmer. (Two keybs, dig?) And that's just for starters.
The Palladium show was a sprawling, thrilling best-of--all goosebumps and grins. You can see where those "American Radiohead" comparisons came from--not from the toe-dipping, expectation-fucking-with forays into art-rock, but the fact that both bands need to be experienced live before you can really get it, really feel it.
Wilco's albums, especially the most recent ones, feel a bit too...polite, freshly scrubbed, well-appointed. They're absent the wit and warmth of the live show, which has become in recent years a widescreen, surround-sound epic--all that's missing is the laser-light show.