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]