Wilco Worries

I saw Wilco play on Oct. 5. Or perhaps I should say I saw Jeff Tweedy play with his backing band for the first time. Either way, what I saw was not the same group I’d seen over the years at the Majestic Theater. It certainly wasn’t the one I’d seen perform at Aquinas College in support of Mermaid Avenue or at the now-defunct Lounge Axe during the NBA Finals in 1998.

Of course it wasn’t the same. Bands change over the years, they release albums, they drop and add members. Sometimes a good band starts to suck. Sometimes bands just call it quits and other times they drag out their own death as solo projects, age, drugs, whatever, begin to take their toll. I’m not suggesting Wilco is necessarily going down any of these paths, not when their best album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, has been recorded and awaits release. But I’m nervous.

I’m not going to go into an in-depth analysis of the show, set lists, etc. Suffice to say, it was a good show. I enjoyed it. Most of the crowd seemed to enjoy it. Though from my observation, Tweedy didn’t, and that’s where my nervousness comes from. He/they played for about an hour, Tweedy standing at the forefront, Tweedy calling the shots, Tweedy obviously at the center of everything happening, the others acting merely as support. Fine. But having seen the way that Jay Bennett and Tweedy used to riff off each other, having seen the two of them fueling each other on stage, well, I missed that. Apparently, so did Tweedy.

After the first hour, having not previously addressed the crowd, Tweedy comes to the mic between songs and asks the question: Are you guys enjoying this? The crowd cheers and Tweedy responds: I guess I’ll have to take your word for it. Then he says this will be the last song and they play “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” And it rocks and they leave.

The music is, in a word, phenomenal. But the attitude. . . huh?

After the obligatory 10 minutes, the group returns to rabid cheering. And Tweedy lambastes the crowd for “people talking in the back.” Now mind you, the vast majority of the first hour of music was YHF stuff, which, lest they all have broadband Internet connections, I can’t see faulting the crowd for not knowing or being into. But see, it’s not really the talking that’s the problem, people talk during shows all the time. It’s more that Jeff Tweedy is “alone” on the stage now; Bennett’s gone, his guitar(s) left with him, and the ultra-introspective Tweedy is left with no creative foil and a hell of a lot of guitar work. So Tweedy’s looking to the crowd for the sort of feeling he used to get performing with Bennett. As we all know, the crowd is a fickle mistress. (As Tweedy alluded to, some of the people out there are trying to get laid, get drunk, or worrying about shit that’s a bit more important than his lamentations on American society. And I’m sorry, Jeff, but you’ve got to let them be.)

So perhaps I’m just such a Wilco geek that I can’t stand to see the band change? Perhaps, but remember, I liked the show. I had a good time. It was better than the last Wilco show I’d seen at the Majestic. Once Tweedy got over his talking-in-the-back angst and started rocking, or “playing the hits” as he may have felt he was being forced to do, even the talkers shut up and screamed along to “Passenger Side” and “California Stars.”

So, take it at face value; go see Wilco for yourselves. Let me stress, it’s a good show without Bennett. But it’s different and there’s always potential for disaster when things change, just as there’s potential for further greatness. We can probably all agree that the last thing in the world a band that’s been as wonderfully creative in reinventing itself with every album should do is churn out Summerteeth replicas, AC-DC-like.

But be forewarned: If you see Tweedy up there on stage sucking down the coffee and whining, he might need cheering up. He misses Jay. Buy him a beer—or offer a ten-spot to pay for your CD-R copy of Yankee.

[Correction: the show referenced in the lede was at Calvin College in support of Summerteeth; Wilco has never played Aquinas. -ed. 10/18/2017]

17 thoughts on “Wilco Worries”

  1. Nice post. On every single “solo, acoustic Tweedy” bootleg I have, he admonishes the crowd for talking. It bugs me every time I hear it. But at the same time, I can almost forgive it in a solo, acoustic setting. It makes sense that you’re there for the music, even if it takes place in a bar. But at a full rock show? Come on.People attend concerts for many different reasons. Not everybody is a rock snob like Jeff Tweedy or the contributors to Glorious Noise. Some people consider it a “social event,” a chance to go out and hang with your friends and catch a buzz. Just like every other day in these people’s lives, the music is not the priority. Sometimes I envy these people whose lives aren’t consumed by music. Sometimes I feel sorry for them.

  2. From last sunday’s Tribune Magazine pullout:In January, Coomer was fired and Kotche, with whom Tweedy had been collaborating on solo projects the previous year, was brought in on drums. Coomer got the bad news in a phone call from Margherita, and he was surprised and hurt.”The misconception is that this is a band,” Coomer says. “The reality is that it’s Jeff and a bunch of glorified sidemen. I stuck around knowing that, and the music we made together was one of the greatest experiences of my life, but the way it ended was pretty low rent.”

  3. What a cute article! I really am worried about Wilco and whether or not they are going to survive recent changes…kind of reminscent of Uncle Tupelo — though in someways the results ended up better/stronger that the original, so who knows…As far as people talking, I have to agree with the writer. Even if you’re not a “rock snob”, it’s incredibly rude to continually talk during a show. It’s inconsiderate to the musicians and distracting to the audience members who actually do want to hear the music. If you aren’t there to listen, stay in the bar or hold your talking to between sets. I mean an occasional comment is one thing, but chatting during the whole set is so annoying. If you are there purely to socialize, go to Tequila Roadhouse and don’t bother pretending to appreciate music.

  4. The admonition to the audience reminds me of seeing Lyle Lovett at Meadowbrook–an outdoor venue–a few years ago. Someone, somewhere lit up a joint. . .and Lovett stopped playing. He wasn’t nice. He simply said that he wouldn’t play as long as he could smell it. Period. Yes, he did, eventually, start up again. But this made me wonder: Hadn’t I paid my 20-some bucks to hear the guy play? Hadn’t several other people done the same? Isn’t there an implied contract or obligation here?Or maybe I’m just being crabby like those guys.

  5. GSV: There is a big difference between smoking a joint and talking throughout the show. Smoking up shouldn’t have distracted the audience, and in fact might enhance the musical experience for those partaking…and you are right — it’s a bit conceited to refuse to play for whatever reason when people have paid to see the show. But this doesn’t change our point that talking during a show is totally disrespectful and rude and obnoxious. whether or not you’re crabby.

  6. It’s funny, I saw Wilco on October 4 – the night before the posted review – and had a completely different experience. The band seemed to be having a great time, they were all laughing, smiling, talking to each other between songs. Their first set was maybe an hour long, but they played three more encores. It was a great gig, maybe the best Wilco show I’ve seen…

  7. A friend of mine saw them in Philly just before the Detroit show and said the same thing. In fact, he said it was the most relaxed he’d ever seen Tweedy. This was from a guy who has seen Wilco loads of times in a variety of venues. It may have just been an off night.Sab and I got hollered at when Sabu lit a smoke at Pine Knob (I don’t care what it’s called now). This was an OUTDOOR venue! We were there to see Neil Young–for the second night in a row I think) and Sab gets yeeled at for smoking?! What the fuck? Talking’s another thing entirely. Shut up.

  8. Sab, I remember a recent Weezer concert review by Jake that cut-on those guys a bit for not having the atmosphere at their live show in 2001 that they seemed to have back in the early 90s. I think that when rock shows are few and far between, a big fan will most always enjoy it. When you become a critic and you can recite the different years, venues and tours during/at which you saw Wilco, you no longer have the perspective of a (happy) fan. You instead expect a certain experience, which becomes more and more difficult for you to achieve. It’s sort of like being a crack head! You can’t ever replicate those first highs, no matter how many times you get baked. Weren’t you also the one who ripped on Lucinda Williams’s show for not “rockin” you like you wanted?Could there be a patern here? It’s a worthy discussion…..when is does a fan become a critic, and can they still enjoy the music?Scotty

  9. I think so, Scotty. The Magnetic Fields are my all-time favorite group, and I find their live shows completely mesmerizing. However, the last time I saw them, after seeing them countless times before, I spent the whole time feeling dissapointed — keyboard instead of drums didn’t work as well, the songs from 69 Love Songs just weren’t as good live, the acoustics at the Double Door didn’t work for the band, etc, etc. So to your question, when does a fan become a critic? I don’t know, but I definitely think it happens. When you really enjoy a band live and have seen them enough times, I guess you just start to expect the same feeling you had the first time you saw them and are bound to get disappointed. It’s like that with everything — kind of like the first time you have sex with someone vs. 100th time. It’s just not the same, often not as enjoyable. Not necessarily bad, just different.

  10. I have seen the Sinatras more than any band alive and I can still sometimes get the same rush I got the first times I saw them. Though it may, in fact, be due to how rarely I get to see them anymore. Of the last three Sinatras shows I saw, two were sloppy and not so great, and one was Earth-shattering. That one was worth it all.

  11. Having seen Elvis Costello various times with various line-ups, while I have found the performances to be somewhat memorable in their own ways, I concur, somewhat, with Eleanor & Sarah about how it is never the same after repeated exposures. I wonder about whether this isn’t a change in the artist as much as a change in the context that he/she/it is being perceived within. Our lives change, but the artist doesn’t change with us. And so the music doesn’t necessarily have the same spark or sparkle. But I’m not certain that this holds in all cases, because there have been some musicians I’ve seen multiple times (the late Michael Hedges comes to mind) and it never struck me as anything but awe-inspiring.And while I don’t condone talking during shows (per the comments way up there), what I find to be more troubling are the people who sing along with the musicians, especially as there seems to be a correlation between tone deafness and the propensity to belt it out.

  12. Which leads me to another concert experience featuring the incredibly tone deaf Sabu…Jake Brown, Sab and I went to see Johnny Cash a few years back. It was an outdoor show at Michigan State University. It was a fine summer day and we got there early. We had a few beers in the parking lot and then headed in to catch the opening acts, which included June Carter Cash and the Cash children.As the Man in Black took the stage and the beer loosened our vocal chords, we sang ever louder to the old standards. As a Boy Named Sue rang from our mouths a visibly irritated blowhard in front of us turned around and told us he wasn’t there to hear us sing. What!? This was an old fashioned bally hoo in the great outdoors. How could you NOT sing with the Man in Black?

  13. This is definitely NOT a case of Wilco letting me down just because I’ve seen them a bunch of times. Remember, I liked the show and called the music “phenomenal”. My concern is that Tweedy is going to really crack up and then the shows are going to suck and he won’t even realize it because he’s so out of touch with reality. (Kind of like Lou Reed.)

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