There’s no point talking about the songs on Wilco’s live Ashes of American Flags DVD. If you like Wilco, you’ll like the songs. You’ll love the horns they add to “The Late Greats” in New Orleans and so on and so on. Bands put out live things for their fans. So here’s some stuff I thought about while I was watching it.
Nels Cline is a super badass guitar player. I mean, he’s really fucking good. He can do the noodly stuff (what Joe Strummer derisively referred to as “the fiddly bits”) but he an also hold back and just let the song do its thing. He’s like everything I like about Peter Buck and Tad Kubler rolled up into the same guy.
No matter how you feel about a Wilco album, its songs will almost always be better live. Sky Blue Sky is a pretty subtle record, and I like it (it took some time to grow on me, however), but hearing those songs performed live was a real eye-opener. For years, right up through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco sounded to me like Jeff Tweedy and his backup band (this is, I submit to you, part of the reason Jay Bennett was ousted from the band) for better or worse but over their last couple of studio albums (and their stellar live album, Kicking Television), they’ve really coalesced into a band. Watching their performances of “Impossible Germany” and “You are My Face” got me very excited for their next studio album, and even more excited to see them in June when they come to Los Angeles. I hope they bring the horns with them.
The last time I saw Wilco live was at Bumbershoot in 2003, when they opened for R.E.M. This was between Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, when Jeff Tweedy was still, apparently, battling some stage fright and migraines. Their performance was fine, but Tweedy himself seemed uneasy. I was blown away by Kicking Television when it came out because of how vibrant it sounded. Tweedy finally sounded like he was having fun, and that continues on Ashes of American Flags. He jokes with the audience at one point that he had to have a steroid shot so he could sing that night, so if that show ended up being one of the greatest shows in rock history, it would have to go into the record books with an asterisk because he’s on performance-enhancing drugs. There’s a sense of humor present in the man and his band that was not always evident in the Jay Bennett era (not taking sides here – I love Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but if you’ve seen I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, you can see a clash of egos brewing between Bennett and Tweedy. Said clash has culminated in Bennett’s recent lawsuit against Tweedy, claiming that Bennett never signed a release for footage of himself to appear in the film. This might have some legal standing if Tweedy was the filmmaker. As it is, Sam Jones is the filmmaker – Bennett should read the subtitle on the DVD box: “A Film About Wilco by Sam Jones.” Might point him in the right direction) and Wilco as a band is better for it.
In fact, now that I think about it, they’re kind of a highly specialized force for musical awesomeness. They have Tweedy, who is obviously a very talented lyricist (and a good guitarist in his own right); the afore-mentioned Mr. Cline, who is a guitar wizard; Pat Sansone, who is a great multi-instrumentalist (on the DVD, Tweedy praises him as perhaps the only guy in Wilco who actually makes things look easy on stage); Mikael Jorgensen, an excellent keyboardist (and the quietest guy in the band – I don’t think he says ten words on the DVD); John Stirrat is a great bassist, an excellent background vocalist, and, apparently Tweedy’s rock (Tweedy says that, though he wouldn’t want it to, Wilco could probably weather another lineup change, “as long as it’s not John”); and then there’s Glenn Kotche, one of the most underrated drummers in rock. Kotche is not your typical, John Bonhamy, heavy metal skinpounder; he’s much more subtle than that (although he does do some kickass drumming on “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Monday,” among other tunes). But it’s his subtlety that I find so remarkable. He’s not just a metronome – dude is adding real texture to Wilco’s songs, and beating himself half to death to do it. If you watch Ashes of American Flags, you’ll see Glenn Kotche do more with a few hits of a cymbal than a lot of drummers do in a four minute song. My point here, really, is that Wilco has gone from alt-country rockers on A.M. to a much broader, harder to classify band on their more recent releases. They’re still a rock band, sure, but they’ve expanded their sound on the work of musicians who are phenomenally good at what they do but who also never sacrifice the soul of the song to their technical prowess. A lot of that rests on Tweedy’s lyrical talents and his sonic vision; he’s a guy who knows what he wants to hear. I believe it’s Nels Cline in the video who points out that even when Tweedy seems unsure, Cline (or whoever) is never really convinced that Tweedy is unsure.
So Ashes of Amerian Flags is a big gift to Wilco fans (especially since it includes free downloadables of all the songs on the DVD!) and a nice sort of update to where the band is now compared to where they were the last time we saw them on DVD. In fact, Stirrat, Kotche, and Tweedy are the only guys in the band now who were there for I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, but Ashes shows them as a unit that’s much tighter for the storms they’ve weathered and the three new(ish) members earn their places admirably in one of America’s finest bands.