“This is a man with arms open wide/a sonic shoulder for you to cry,” Jeff Tweedy sings on “Wilco (the song),” the lead-off track from the alt-rocker’s seventh proper LP. In what proves to be one hell of a bait-and-switch, Tweedy insists that despite the “knife in your back” or the “rough road” you may travel down, “Wilco will love you, baby.” Taken at face value, the lyric is a sweet (if blatantly easier-said-than-done) sentiment, and the sort of line that begs to be parroted back in concert.
So what’s the catch? Well, let’s just say Tweedy and Co. spend the next 40 minutes prompting you to cry on that shoulder of theirs…though only if you’re paying close enough attention.
For Wilco stalwarts, the irony shouldn’t be much of a surprise—Tweedy has long established himself as one of the premiere bittersweet songsmiths of the aughts. What’s particularly striking about Wilco (the album), rather, is how straightforward it feels. It’s Tweedy’s most musically tame effort since Being There (and yes, that includes Sky Blue Sky), despite being as emotionally pluming as some of the best cuts off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born.
And I’m no sentimentalist—I swoon over the experimentalism of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as much the next nerd, but I’m not keen on holding the band hostage to itself. So let me be clear: Wilco (the album) isn’t a weak album because it’s straightforward—it’s weak because the music often fails to do Tweedy’s words and ideas justice.
It looks like Wilco may finally be ready to settle down—for now, at least. The latest incarnation of the band has been together for over three years and with Sky Blue Sky last year, Wilco decided to forgo their constant experimentation in favor of a straightforward though enjoyable folk/rock record. On Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club, Wilco’s comfort with their current situation shone through. Jeff Tweedy and Co., dressed in black button-downs (Tweedy added a tan cowboy hat to the ensemble), hit all the right notes as they made their way through the better part of Sky Blue Sky, along with twenty songs from older albums.
Tweedy calmly jigged about on stage, even during upbeat numbers as Nels Cline wildly wielded his guitar, looking like a man who has nothing to prove. When an audience member handed him a fake Grammy statue during a break between songs, his first reaction was to bite it (“making sure it’s not food,” he said). “Thanks for the Grammy,” he added. “We already decided we didn’t want one.” (Tweedy should have said “another one”; A Ghost is Born, released in 2005, won two Grammys.)
Critics who felt Sky Blue Sky lacked the innovation of earlier Wilco albums are right, but its simplicity showcases the sincerity of Tweedy’s songwriting. During “Side with the Seeds,” Tweedy looked as vulnerable and as his lyrics as he sang, “Well I’ll side with you … if you’ll side with me,” holding his hat to his heart and staring straight into the audience.
Not that he has to ask; Wilco has already built up a devoted following throughout the years that was in full force last night. The crowd requested obscure B-sides and sang along with older songs like “Summerteeth,” “War on War,” and “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”. Wilco’s popularity isn’t just confined to hardcore fans, either; they postponed their Feb. 29 show in Charleston, South Carolina to be able to perform on Saturday Night Live.
Wilco’s energy was present last night too, especially whenever one of Tweedy’s delicate songs would deconstruct into cacophonous turmoil, Cline’s riffs skidding over the noise of the band. But in some ways, the band was more toned down than usual. In previous shows in which that Wilco played “Misunderstood”, Tweedy would sing “I’d like to thank you all for nothing” and repeat “Nothing!” longer than seemed possible, the band stuck in a loop behind him. Last night, Tweedy chose a more hopeful refrain to pick up on: “We can make it better” from “Is That the Thanks I Get?” When the song ended, Tweedy made the political statement of the night, adding “The last section of that song is known as the Obama fight song.”
Wilco plays again tonight at the 9:30 Club. Good luck getting a ticket if you don’t already have one, though if you have a lot of spare cash lying around, this might be a good place to look.
You can check out Wilco’s almost complete setlist after the jump (it’s missing a few songs towards the end).