Memo to Wilco

Jeff TweedyTo: Wilco

From: Stephen Macaulay

Re: Comerica Taste Fest, July 2, 2003

Guys. You’ve really got to consider a few things before taking on gigs. Like playing in the parking lot of the Fisher Theater in the New Center district of Detroit last night. Sure, it was good to see you. Up on the stage sponsored by the MGM Grand Casino, one of three casinos in the nearby vicinity. (Oddly enough, Jeff, you didn’t make that connection during “Casino Queen.” Sure, you can crack the Tigers for being a shitty baseball team—as when you asked the crowd how many know the lyrics to “Jesus, etc.” and then noted that there were about 20%, which you described as the hitting average of our hometown team—which, of course, gives your act some immediacy and context for the sweaty crowd. But the casino connection was just so obvious. Maybe that’s the reason why you didn’t.) There were 35 restaurants that had their wares on the blocked-off West Grand Boulevard. Everything from the expected ribs to turkey quesadillas, which accounted for the smoke and occasional fragrance in the air. Just a few blocks away, down West Grand, there’s the Motown Museum. Small world. You were in some hallowed terrain.

Parking LotAnyway, about the parking lot. A friend of mine once saw the Bob Seger System in the parking lot of the Oakland Mall. That’s the System. The band that did “2 + 2 = ?” and “Heavy Music.” Not the lame-ass group that became famous. You can’t hear the good stuff on the radio, as you know. (Just the crap on the Chevy truck commercials.) The sound was awful, he tells me. Which was absolutely right for them. Hell, Pep Perrine used gold-painted trash cans for tom-toms back then. But it’s different for you guys. Jeff, your vocals—and you knew it, asking about the mike early on in the show—initially sounded as though you were singing in a Maytag side-by-side refrigerator box through one of those megaphones that singers used in the ’30s. The instruments were moderately better, with the audio fidelity of a garage band—and I mean a band that plays in an actually garage that includes tools, lawn mower, shovels, and miscellaneous detritus. When you did the willful distortions that are common on YHF, didn’t have the audio charm of the recorded disc, because everything sounded fuzzed out and sonic looped when you weren’t trying. “Poor Places” didn’t need to be played in such a poor place. I must admit that an hour into the show, the sound seemed better. I’m not sure whether the guys working the soundboard actually got things right or maybe I just became used to it.

WilcoYou should probably know that the several hundred people there were not down there for the fried corn or the fish and chips (as a life-long denizen of Detroit, I’ve got to confess that I never realized there were quite so many fish and chips shops: You’d have thought it was London had the skies not been clear and the temperature hovering around 90 [given the Kahn architecture of things in the immediate area, like the classic former GM Building, which was catty-corner from the stage, that claim of London is not as outrageous as it might otherwise seem. Not all that may blocks away Kosovo might have come to mind.]) but to hear you guys. Even if crowd didn’t do a good “ooooooo heeeeeyyy” on “Heavy Metal Drummer,” as you’d asked. Maybe their lungs are bad from too many clove cigarettes or Du Mauriers (there were Canadians represented in the crowd, including one guy not far from me who seemed to be in some sort of Joe Cocker fugue during the show, jerking his arms and fingers in a spastic tremor and playing air-bass, not guitar, something that seems a bit uncommon). The mayor of the city, Kwame Kilpatrick, who is sometimes described as the “hip-hop” mayor due to his youthfulness, ought to get you guys back more often to persuade so many suburbanites to go downtown.

The question that arises is: “Is bad-sounding Wilco better than no Wilco?” Yes, I know how many people will answer that question. But it brings to mind another question that I overheard last night. There was a group of well-dressed black women ranging in age from, perhaps, 35 to 60, who were carrying their paper plates of food and plastic beverage cups. It was about 20 minutes before the 8 pm starting time. The folding chairs were all-but filled, yet they, like many others, walked toward the stage, as though they (and the others) expected that there would be six or seven empty seats front and center that were just sort of waiting to be filled by people who hadn’t shown up a couple hours early. And one of the women asked, “Are all these people here because the band is good, or is it because it’s free?” The answer to that could be “Yes” on both counts.

Thanks to Scott Putman for the Wilco photos and to Jason Welch for the shot of the parking structure! And, as always, thanks to Via Chicago for bringing all the Wilco fans together in one spot!

20 thoughts on “Memo to Wilco”

  1. I just saw them in Philly, but I had to pay. 5.50 a beer on top of it. I thought they sounded good though… Maybe they feared for their lives, I know I would, if I were in detroit! ;)

  2. I learned something about rock shows and beer from my friend Galen. It’s the best kept secret in rock and roll. Here’s what you do. Before the show, you get a 22 ounce beer at a party store. You sit in the car and you drink it really fast, then you go in. This is a pleasant way to start your concert going experience, and if you’re a lightweight like me (97 pounds), you might need one more 22 ounce beer, tops. (Note: if you are Derek Phillips, substitute 22 oz bottles of moonshine)

    Here’s another tip but it only works if you are a paraplegic. You wear prosthetic legs but the joke’s on them because you have constructed them from beer bottles.

    Another tip, for a Wilco show, walk in the show with a cigarette behind your ear. But when you go to smoke it, it’s actually a marijuana cigarette. Everyone around you will know that you’re a guy who really uses your head. This is an important tip because it will make Wilco’s music sound good. Also some people around you will be happy because they like to imagine that the world is still this cool place where people smoke weed at shows.

  3. Steve, the article was fine but next time could I ask for more stuff in brackets please? Reading it I was finding it flowed too well, more bracket stuff would really help.

    thanks a meeeeeellion……your friend,


  4. was this a free concert or one of those cityfest’s with lots o’ bands for like 35 bucks? in related news I heard the free ryan adams show in NYC did not go over too well on the 4th.

  5. I agree. The sound wasn’t the best, but it was better than no wilco show at all. However for me it was quite a memorable one. After the show when the crowd dissipated about 10:15pm a couple guys in a golf cart drove up and asked what I was waiting for. To which I responded,”I just wanted to say hi to Jeff.” They told security that me and my friend were with them and we met jeff talking to some people behind a tent. So I got to meet Jeff, get a picture with them, and then continue to run across woodward to my car late at night. That experience more than made up for the bad acoustics.

  6. fuck you with a dirty stick

    your article was stupid

    and you appear foolish in the eyes of others

  7. for the first third (quarter?) of the show, when they played the droney, experimentalish YHF songs, i was thinking maybe no wilco would be better than bad wilco. but even though the people around me never stopped shouting to each other very fucking loudly over the music, i thought, by the end, that it was a good show.

    i really liked that new song that tweedy said was unfit for a festival setting.

  8. Kevin: I agree about the song, but then there were those people who, as you rightly put it, “never stopped yelling to each other very fucking loudly,” which sort of validated Tweedy’s point. . .which leads me to wonder why they played it: Practice?

  9. The sound was fine from the front row… did you have bad seats or something? I had no complaints whatsoever and had a great time (except for the rude people who walked right up to the rail in front of us who’d been there for hours… bastards).

  10. Brandon: About 1/3 of the way back. And had you been further back, you would have become even more annoyed by all of the people who rolled in 15 minutes or less before the show and decided that the aisle was a good place to stand–in front of people who’d staked out seats long before the show started. But for free, I guess, that’s how it goes.

  11. I DID not check out that show but I did see the lads the next night up at Summerfest. Fountains of Wayne opened for them. I was surprised how good the sound was for a festival setting.

    There are a couple other stages in the Summerfest setting and I thought the sound from other shows would have cause problems. For the most part that wasn’t an issue.

    The mellower Wilco songs didn’t play well as people were chatting and it was tough to get the full effect of the songs. But when they played stuff like Casino Queen and the louder songs the crowd was rockin!

    I am going to see them at the Audotorium Theater which should be the best venue I have seen them at as far as acoustics go. I am looking forward to checking out that show!

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