Wilco and Califone at the Michigan Theater, October 25, 2002
Having never heard Califone, and knowing that GloNo‘s Derek Phillips had interviewed the band’s Tim Rutili, before going to Ann Arbor to see the show, I asked him what I should expect. He replied, “slow, blues-based weirdness. Strange melodies and lyrics.” I checked out the Califone web presence, I saw that the band is described as playing “a series of gorgeous and personal hymnals delivered with the electro-rustic vocabulary of one of america’s most original bands.” When I saw Jim Becker pick up a banjo, I thought to myself, “Uh-oh, we’re entering the land of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.” Now, I don’t have anything against the banjo. But I wasn’t in the mood to listen to something that would smack of a soundtrack to Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” or the like. I should have paid more attention to the teen queen stickers affixed to the front of Rutili’s electric piano to know that this was not going to be anything like that.
The music performed strikes me as being something more geological, a formation that is stratified with many layers, yet the layers are not individual slices (i.e., piano/percussion/bass/banjo/voice) but have come to be completely sintered together such that it is a whole, not a sum of individual parts (i.e., pianopercussionbassbanjovoice). I must admit that with the exception of Rutili announcing the name of a song—”Michigan Girls”—I had absolutely no idea what he was singing; it could have been a different language or an alternative speech pattern. Rather than blues or electro-rustic, which brings to my mind Hot Tuna, Califone’s music seems to share more of the sound of Brian Eno’s ambience and Robert Fripp’s repetitive structures.
This will undoubtedly be one of the most unlikely metaphors ever used to describe music.
If you’re not familiar with it, it is a custard-like dessert that tends to be served in restaurants where there’s real cloth in the tablecloth and the silverware has more than a passing acquaintance with silver. The crème brûlée consists of eggs, cream and vanilla; there is a solid surface of caramelized sugar on top of the small ceramic container that it is cooked in. So when you eat the dessert, you break through the top and dip into the custard; there is a combination of both solidity and smoothness in your mouth. The fragrance of vanilla tends to be evident without being completely overpowering.
As mentioned, a crème brûlée is served in a small container: about the diameter of a Dixie cup but only half the height. That’s because it is so rich. And chances are, after you’ve eaten the main courses that have led up to it, you’re certainly not in need of much more in the way of food.
So what the hell does this have to do with Califone? Well, it’s this. There is certainly the well-made, well-formed, well-executed performance that is a crème brùlée pulled off correctly. There is the mixture of flavors and textures—some solid, some smooth, some fragrant, some neutral—that is characteristic of the dessert. But there’s something else. Too much of a good thing tends not to be such a good thing. That is, if, instead of a Dixie cup-sized container you were given a crème brûlée in a Starbucks venti cup, you would very soon be overwhelmed by what is supposed to be a treat. It seemed to me that each of the musical pieces that Califone performed was just a bit too long, that there seemed to be a bit too much meandering, such that I became, in a phrase, somewhat sickened by surfeit. Perhaps not a venti cup, but certainly a saucer full. (I am reminded, of course, in making this criticism, of the scene in Amadeus when Salieri tells Mozart that there are too many notes in one of Mozart’s compositions. And now that I have brought up Austria, I will not go on to explain how Mozart’s music is like a torte.)
I once worked with a guy who can write circles around other people. And that, in part, was his undoing. No, it wasn’t a factor of jealousy bred against his demivirtuosity. Rather, it was because when he wrote, he was always writing circles around the subject: he never ventured off of the circumference. While that may be useful if one is, say, writing a novel of Proustian proportions (just think of how long Marcel riffed on a cookie), it has less appropriateness when writing prose for a periodical.
Which was brought to mind by Rutili, et. al. Here is a group of individuals who are clearly exceedingly adept at playing their instruments. They are obviously well practiced, well versed. Presumably, they could play damn near anything. Yet they choose to play music that is within such a narrow niche that it is not surprising that a record label was established to carry it. During their set, people were milling around and talking. Realize that the Michigan Theater is a theater: rows of seats ascending. Making one’s way through an aisle required others in the row to stand up or squnch. I imagine that many of those who didn’t pay attention to Califone when Tweedy announced that it was their favorite band were exceedingly sorry.
But I begin to wonder: What is it that makes a person who is cleverly adept do something that is so clearly marginal no matter how accomplished one is at it?
After Califone, Wilco sounded like a band that played a series of hit singles.
What can I say about Wilco? Let me hasten to note that unlike many of my GloNo colleagues, I am not a Wilcophile and that I was unfashionably late to the party. And while attending the party that is based on the theme of Wilcomania, I must admit that I’m not totally in the swing of things, as I own only Summerteeth, YHF, and the Uncle Tupelo anthology. Moreover, having seen I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, I came away with the notions that:
- Jay Bennett may be a nudge, but he got screwed
- The band ought to be called “Jeff Tweedy with Wilco”
- It was less a documentary than “faction” (i.e., where fact meets fiction). (E.g., Sam Jones just happened to be taking a piss and carrying his camera while Tweedy goes into a stall to blow chunks. Where was Johnny Knoxville?)
What can you make of this, from the face of my ticket:
All Ages Welcome
No, not the Clear Channel part, which I know will have some people moderately incensed. I’m puzzled by the “All Ages Welcome.”
One thing struck me as being odd: When Wilco took the stage, a vast majority of the audience stood. And after the opening song—”I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”—they continued to stand. And stand. (A fluke of luck: I had a seat in the front row, and the guy behind me was very happy that he wasn’t forced to stand for a couple of hours.) When I looked back, I didn’t see people standing and dancing in the rows. They seemed to just stand there. Yes, during the two encores, there was plenty of movement. (Yes, I stood, too.) But standing?
The song that was shouted out by the audience members more often than any other was “Casino Queen.” Tweedy responded by saying that he didn’t want to play it because they were playing “pretty music—or what we think is pretty music.” The band was playing the better part of YHF during the set. “Casino Queen” was played during an encore.
During the encore—where the band, in effect, went “electric”—Tweedy announced that someone had called out for a comparatively obscure song—”So sing along with it—if you can.” Tweedy threw down the gaunlet. The song was “Passenger Side.” The audience member could sing along. He was standing next to my left ear.
The guy in question appeared to be in his early twenties. Short hair. Built like a high school wrester. Throughout the show he’d yell out in a deep voice: “Twee—dee! Twee—dee! You’re the man.” When he got to get up to the stage during the encore I noticed that when he’d say that, he’d thrust out an arm in a diagonal fashion with one finger pointed. It was an odd salute.
“All Ages Welcome.”
My wife was with me. Her pre-show familiarity with Wilco pretty much consisted of seeing the movie and hearing about ½ of YHF and less Summerteeth. She said that the show was one of the top five we’ve ever seen (and we’ve seen plenty), and went out a couple days later and bought Being There and A.M.
I ordered a copy of Califone’s Roomsound.