In the context of a live show, there are no bad Wilco songs. None. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. Even songs like “Hate It Here,” a song I routinely skip when listening to Sky Blue Sky turns into an energetic romp when performed live by this band — I think I mentioned, when reviewing their Ashes of American Flags DVD, that Wilco is made up of some of the very best musicians I’ve ever seen. And they proved it last night at the Wiltern here in Los Angeles, although if you go to see them tonight or Thursday night, you’ll be treated to a much better opening act (Okkervil River, who are fucking brilliant live) than I was.
Last night’s opener was Jonathan Wilson, a guy who clearly thinks he’s David Gilmour because all of his songs rip off either 1) Pink Floyd, 2) Radiohead, 3) a shitty jam band but usually 4) some godawful, overlong combination of 1, 2, and 3. His guitar tone sucks, and the vocals are all whispered and meaningless, clearly taking a backseat to his always-above-the-12th-fret solos, which I guess are supposed to be impressive. But I was not impressed. I was bored. I felt like I needed a cup of coffee by the middle of the third song (which was, I shit you not, about 20 minutes into his [mock?] epic set). At one point, my friend Tim, who accompanied me to this show, leaned over and said, “I’d rather be watching golf,” which should tell you all you really need to know about Jonathan Wilson.
Also, Jonathan Wilson features a Rent-a-Hippie “percussionist” who occasionally shook some things that I couldn’t hear or beat some bongos like a hippie at a drum circle. This was particularly laughable knowing that Wilco’s Glenn Kotche was coming to the stage next, he being one of the best drummers in music right now.
So enough about Mr. Wilson’s jammy bullshit. Let’s talk about Wilco. They stormed the stage a little after nine, ripping right into “Wilco (The Song)”, an instant crowd pleaser if ever there was one. It gets a little hazy after that, not because the show was forgettable by any means, but becasue they packed it with so much awesomeness (and 2 motherfucking encores) that it’s difficult to recall what was done when.
Definite highlights include “A Shot in the Arm,” which is always a great live tune. There’s nothing like standing with a few hundred new friends shouting, “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm” and following that with “Something in my veins/ bloodier than blood!” “Handshake Drugs,” was another real treat, along with it’s fellow A Ghost is Born track “At Least that’s What You Said,” which is, to those who know it, an exercise in anticipation. Jeff Tweedy delivered the verses with sincerity and soul, but we were all waiting breathlessly for him to rip into that guitar solo, not because he’s a Joe Satriani (read: Kenny G of the guitar) or anything, but because the solo, shaking and shuddering around the song, is the embodiment of musical catharsis.
A Ghost is Born was well represented last night, in fact – Wilco started an encore with “The Late Greats” and ended with an even more epic version of the already epic “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” in which the band entrusted a heavy rhythmic burden to the audience (while Tweedy talked about how stupid it is that people will hold their hands above their heads and clap just because a guy with a guitar tells them to). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, perhaps their best album, supplied only “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Jesus, Etc.” (one of their very best songs in a catalogue of awesome songs). There was considerable time given to Wilco (The Album), which is due out next week. The new songs were all great and I’m hoping they sound as good on disc (I only remembered two track names – “Wilco (The Song)” and “One Wing” from breezing through the stream on their website).
I want to talk about guitar players (partly because I am one and partly because I want to). I couldn’t help but compare the deft and tasteful playing of Nels Cline to Jonathan Wilson’s indulgent noodling. There is no doubt that Nels Cline shreds shit up when he plays on stage, but the way in which he does it is always rooted in the song and he’s never mugging to his fellow bandmates while he does it (except in the stellar, show-closing “Hoodoo Voodoo” in which he and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone engaged in an epic guitar duel/duet that was so good I kinda want to punch them both in the face. But even then, the mugging was more a comment on rock star poserism than anything else. Tweedy played referee, but the duel ended in a tie, with the audience quite rightly cheering both players wildly). Wilson, on the other hand, engaged more with his own band than with his audience, constantly ambling over to his 2nd guitarist or his drummer and grinning and nodding as if the audience wasn’t even there. Look: I’m not immune to grooving with bandmates on stage or exchanging a look of “Jesus, isn’t this fun?” or anything like that, but when you play in front of an audience, it might be nice to let them in on the fun, yeah? Where was I? Oh yeah: Nels Cline. Nels Cline plays like a guy who’s trying to use whatever song he’s playing to transcend something, which his why he’s as effective striking muted chords on one song as he is loosing a barrage of squally notes on another. Cline is, in other words, everything Jonathan Wilson (or John Mayer or whoever Rolling Stone thinks is a guitar hero now) is not.
In fact, if I didn’t think this going in (I did), I certainly left last night’s show thinking that Wilco is arguably the best live band I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to rock shows that were more exhausting (The Hold Steady at Lola’s Room is still the best concert I’ve ever been to) or whatever, but Wilco’s performance put me in a state of slackjawed amazement. They are truly awesome, in every sense of the word. In concert, Wilco takes songs you didn’t really like and makes you love them and they take songs you loved and they make you love them more (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” might be my favorite song of the decade – it wasn’t before last night), and even though they didn’t play the song I requested (Mermaid Avenue’s “California Stars”, not out of some sense of local pride – anything but, in fact – but because it’s a goddamn beautiful song), there was no disappointment to be had from Wilco last night. The only thing that could’ve made the show better was having Okkervil River open instead of that boring-ass Jonathan Wilson.