Tag Archives: Neil Young

Tonight’s the Night

Tonight’s the Night

Wilco at the Riviera Theater, Chicago

By Derek Phillips

In 1973, Neil Young toured for an album that was vastly different than the country comfortable Harvest that had made his name as a solo artist the year before. In fact, the set list for many of the ’73 tour dates didn’t include a single song from Harvest, but instead had tracks from Tonight’s the Night, Young’s harrowing tribute to close friends and drug casualties that wouldn’t see official release for almost two more years. As Wilco’s set closed in on ten songs, almost entirely from their as yet unreleased album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF), I began to wonder if Tweedy was walking in Neil Young’s footsteps

Wilco took the stage of Chicago’s Riviera Theater to the precocious and creepy strains of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a song and a movie that are equally innocent and dark—not unlike Wilco’s latest recordings.

From the onset it was clear things had changed since their last Thanksgiving show, now a Chicago tradition. First, the stage was outfitted with white Christmas lights resembling stars against a black sky. Large yellow-white oriental globe lamps also hung above the band adding to the stark, dark spacey-ness of the fantastic YHF.

More importantly, guitarist/keyboardist/collaborator Jay Bennett was gone, having left the band a few months ago. Bennett’s influence on Wilco’s best work (arguably 1996’s Being There and 1998’s Summer Teeth) is undeniable. His sense of melody and skill on keyboards, guitar and as a sound engineer were surely the bedrock of what made Wilco the great band it is today. And most of the first set avoided any guitar-heavy songs with the band focusing on its moodier and more keyboard-driven tracks.

From set opener “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” to “A Shot in the Arm” to the tenth song in the set, “Misunderstood” the band floated through their more introspective songs, completely ignoring the implied demand for toe-tappers like AM‘s “Casino Queen” or “King Pin.” Ten songs down and no sign of any of the lighter, country-inspired tunes that established Wilco as THE band of alt.country. Was Tweedy antagonizing the audience like Young did on his Tonight’s the Night tour? This show was a journey, a test of faith for both the band and the audience. Wilco was walking into the darkness and we were about to see who would follow.

But the band had an ace in the hole with Glenn Kotche on drums. If the driving guitar and spirit of Jay Bennett was missing, it was craftily hidden by Kotche’s truly inspired percussion. Tastefully injecting stuttered percussive flashes into Tweedy’s sparsely populated songs, Kotche added a level of sophistication to songs that could easily be lost in their own space. As the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot wrote in his review of the previous night’s show, “Kotche pulls melody and texture from an instrument typically consigned to the rhythm section.”

And just as other senses sometimes sharpen when one is lost, so too have the members of Wilco stepped up in Bennett’s absence. Longtime auxiliary player, Leroy Bach, washed the songs in lush keyboard parts and though not an inspired guitarist like Bennett, Bach is a capable guitarist who may in time find his own style as the band progresses.

But the MVP of the show was undoubtedly bassist John Stirratt. His pristine harmonies and McCartney-esque bass playing pulled together all of the elements, old and new, of a band in flux. Most notably on YHF’s “War on War.”

And, in the end, this was not an antagonistic show, nor was it an exercise in artistic bullying in which the band forces the audience to swallow unfamiliar material wholesale. Wilco may be moving on but it’s not forgetting and the band played a number of songs covering the seven years of its history. Old timers sang along loudly to “Pick Up the Change” and “I Got You” while their girlfriends cooed at Tweedy as he lightly touched their hearts with “Far Far Away,” “Sunken Treasure” and “One By One.”

In fact, it was in the first encore that IT actually happened. Tweedy finally delivered “California Stars,” his equivalent to Young’s “Heart of Gold.” And that was the difference between the two. Where Neil Young was dragging his audience through forced group therapy in 1973, Tweedy was just asking a loyal audience to follow him. And we did.

There are similarities, of course. Wilco has drifted away from the roots-rock sound that established it as a true American treasure, just as Young drifted away from the down-home folksiness of Harvest (No Depressioners can find solace in the fact that Young has continually returned to his folk roots, just as Tweedy may someday). But in walking away, both Young and Tweedy have stepped into new territory. As Young said in an interview years ago, “Heart of Gold” may have put him in the middle of the road, but he soon got bored and headed for the ditch where you meet more interesting people—maybe even Jeff Tweedy.

Astral Musings

Brown dwarfs are objects in the universe that are smaller than normal stars, bigger than planets. These objects are incapable of sustaining stable nuclear fission like ordinary stars do. So what happens is that they slowly but surely contract. Their light dims.

Last week, sab mentioned how many rock stars of days gone buy are still working it, yet are becoming embarrassments. He cited Lou Reed. Pete Townshend. Bob Dylan (aptly noting that the picture on the new disc makes him appear to be the reincarnation of Vincent Price). And others. So far as he’s concerned, one of the fortunate few who is maintains relevance is Neil Young. (As I watched/listened to Young perform “Imagine” in last night’s “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” it occurred to me that he is probably the only artist living who can actually do the song.)

So a question that arises is whether some of the people whom we blithely designated as being “stars” are really no more than brown dwarfs: Bigger than many, but with an inability to really sustain a shine. Certainly, to stick with this whole astrophysics metaphor, it is true that all stars eventually burn out. But when a star goes, it goes big: It gets extremely hot before it collapses into a black hole.

Related to all of this (funny how things come together) is an ad that I encountered in the October, 2001, issue of Wired for the Toyota Camry. As a bit of background: Toyota is undertaking its biggest marketing campaign in its history. For one thing, it has the all-new Camry, a car that has been the best-seller in the U.S. for years running, a position for the car that the company wants to keep. For another, the managers at the company know that “Toyota” has become synonymous with “quality” and “reliability.” While those are certainly good attributes to have for a vehicle, they think that it is important that people associate the brand with emotion, too. So the new tagline for the company is “Get the Feeling. Toyota.” (Similarly, Lexus, Toyota’s luxo marquee, has gone from “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection” to the “The Relentless Pursuit of Passion.”)

One of the things that all of us associate with emotion (and all too rarely for some people, I’m afraid, passion) is music. So in the multipage gatefold add, the new Camry, tagged “Number 1. With a Bullet”, is associated with musicians, two solo artists and two bands.

The first solo is Kina, a musician from Detroit whose music I am entirely unfamiliar with, so I must, fairly, leave her out of all musings to follow.

But the next one is, surprisingly, Lyle Lovett. Surprisingly, because although I admire the Camry from a technical standpoint, I must admit that the last car that I can imagine Lovett rolling in is a Camry. Something old. Something beat up. Something with, well, character.

Then there are the Go-Go’s. OK. The band has a relatively new album. It is attempting to make a comeback. The band has a certain nostalgic freshness for people who followed its music through the ’80s. Perhaps in an effort not to fade, Belinda Carlisle, arguably the front woman of the band, recently appeared in Playboy. One of my office colleagues brought in the issue (note: there are four males in the office). The photos were examined as though we were the “Lone Gunmen” of X-Files fame. And we became convinced that while the noggin was Belinda’s the remaining, ah, attributes had to be those of another. In an earlier time, when wearing fur was something that was still acceptable, there was a series of ads with the line “What Becomes a Legend”—a.k.a. a bona-fide “Star”—”Most?” and the payoff was Blackgama furs. The photo in the ad was an actress or singer wearing, ostensibly, nothing but the fur coat. Now, evidently, what is imagined to be becoming is nothing. (Apologies to Sartre.)

The final band in the Toyota ad is Earth, Wind & Fire. As I have already dealt with their Pfizer-powered comeback in a previous post, I’ll let them go at the moment (although the relationship of the photo of the Go-Go’s and EW&F is somewhat amusing: Belinda is the closest member of the band to the Viagra-sponsored).

So I wonder: Are Lovett, the Go-Go’s, and Earth, Wind & Fire stars or brown dwarfs? The first has never really made it “big.” Perhaps by design. But maybe a performer doesn’t get to make the choice of big or not: the public makes that decision. The Go-Go’s and Earth, Wind & Fire, by the measure of recordings sold, certainly are star material, but just as the astral brown dwarf is incapable of sustaining stable fission, there was an apparent diminution of their luster over the years, and I doubt that appearing in a Toyota ad is going to help generate the flare that would be characteristic of a real star.

But maybe there is another consideration that has to be made. Few besides astronomers are familiar with things like brown dwarfs. Most of us live our lives without having the slightest idea of where the nearest celestial object is located (hint: you’re on it right now). Perhaps breaking down Camry ads is as curious a pursuit as gazing at the real stars in our universe.

(Shine on, Neil.)