I’ve been listening to my brother-in-law’s music for the past 17 years but I don’t think I ever appreciated it as much as I have during this past week tagging along on the southern California leg of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky tour. I can’t/won’t/ shouldn’t comment on Wilco’s music as if I know what the hell I’m talking about but as an attendee of the past three gigs in Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Los Angeles, may I slip on the hat of an erudite music journalist for just a moment and offer my capsule review of the current tour? Here it comes—you may want to grab a pencil and take notes.
Jesus fucking Christ, those guys are good!
I should leave it at that but I feel compelled to add how blown away I am by the artistry of the six musicians in the current Wilco line-up.
I think in past years I was focused mostly on Jeff’s amazing lyrics but watching three shows in a row I was riveted by so much more this time around, not the least of which was Jeff’s killer guitar playing and singing which have never been better. I’ve always admired bassist John Stirratt’s huge contributions to the band (it doesn’t hurt that he’s one of the nicest guys on the planet) and I’m such a fan of drummer Glenn Kotche, surely one of the best percussionists alive, that I’m practically a groupie. I like to watch parts of every show from the side of the stage just to get a better view of Glenn’s furious sweat-soaked sets. But how have I gone this long without paying adequate attention to the genius of guitarist Nels Cline? Having barely recovered from a ghastly case of adult chicken pox, Nels was ON FIRE at every show that I saw, often spinning off on intense and unexpected explosions of sound that contrasted perfectly with the other musicians and secured Wilco’s reputation as one of the most exciting live acts out there today. Particularly effective was the moving ballad “Via Chicago” which the band begins playing as its heard on the “Summerteeth” album except in their live shows the song is punctuated by alternating aggressive freeform riffs by both Glenn and Nels while Jeff continues singing in his slow, soulful style, apparently oblivious to the violent interludes. This song interpretation evokes the turbulent back thoughts we all experience but are often unable to express out loud. In lesser hands, such musical risk-taking might sound like a lot of pretentious noise, but as performed by Wilco, these innovations are so thrilling they never failed to bring tears to my eyes. I laughed when I saw the photos I tried to take during the shows—even when I was able to get the rest of the band members in clear focus, Nels Cline always appears as a red blur, a whirling dervish who plays that guitar with such skill and force that I wondered how he got through a show with all his fingers intact.
One of the coolest things about Wilco, and I’m guessing one of the reasons why the band is able to feature such brilliant musicians, is that all of them are free to pursue other creative projects in addition to their main Wilco gig. I’m looking forward to catching up on John Stirratt and Pat Sansone’s (who plays guitar and keyboards in Wilco) band, The Autumn Defense. Keyboardist Mike Jorgensen is a former sound engineer who used to create computer sound tapestries for the band during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tour. Mike has a band out of Brooklyn called Pronto. Nels Cline records with many artists including his own Nels Cline Singers and he was named by Rolling Stone this year as one of the “Top 20 Guitar Gods.” Glenn Kotche has three solo albums and has also recorded with Jeff for Loose Fur and Scott McCaughey’s The Minus 5, and Jeff has a lot of projects going on including his participation in the supergroup Golden Smog. I loved spending time with these guys during the past week and seeing their collaborative creativity in action. Traveling in their tour bus from San Diego to L.A. was a blast, especially watching an old Loretta Young movie while debating our choices for the hottest movie stars of all time. How can you not love a band who would come up with such great examples as Kate Winslet, Charlotte Rampling, and Dominique Sanda?
It was also very moving watching the fans at the different Wilco shows. Forever frozen in my mind is a young couple who stood in front of me during the San Diego show, the man behind the woman, his arms tightly around her. They remained like that during the whole show, swaying in closed-eye ecstasy while mouthing the words to every song. I saw people of all ages with huge smiles on their faces for over two hours as well as fans openly sobbing during poignant songs such as “On and On and On,” “Jesus, Etc.,” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” which Jeff always dedicates to my sister. Lots of fun people came to the shows, from Citizen of the Month’s Neil Kramer to insanely funny Fred Armisen to our rabbi and her wife as well as a spattering of Wilco-lovin’ celebs including James Spader, Catherine Keener, Sandra Oh, and Mandy Moore. A highlight of the L.A. Show at the Greek Theatre was when Jeff scooped up my slightly terrified nephew Sammy and brought him out onto the stage to the roars of the crowd. I really loved every minute of these three shows and was sad when they came to an end. Everyone in the band as well as the Wilco management and crew were great to be around. To end my fawning with the most unhip reference I can think of, I felt like the Margaret O’Brien character in “Meet Me in St. Louis” who remarks to older sister Judy Garland, “Wasn’t I lucky to be born in my favorite city?” My version is “Wasn’t I lucky to be related to my favorite rock band?”
On Thursday we had the added fun of going with Wilco to “The Tonight Show’s” NBC studios in Burbank for a taping. It was Leah’s first time in a TV studio and she was thrilled, especially when she got to meet the orangutan and baboon that were guests on Thursday’s show as well as the three current stars of the move “Superbad,” Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. We haven’t seen the film yet (even the “Superbad” guys recommended waiting until our kids were 14 or 15!) but the actors couldn’t have been nicer. We loved Michael Cera on “Arrested Development” and it turned out the talented Jonah Hill was a big Wilco fan, very excited to take a picture with Jeff and making my sister promise to email it to him. How amazing that these three very normal young guys are suddenly huge stars, in the middle of an international tour for the film. Jonah told us that he’s already made plans to attend Rosh Hashanah services at a synagogue in Rome and he talked to Spencer, who is beginning Hebrew School in a few weeks, about his own Bar Mitzvah. Wilco performed “Either Way” from Sky Blue Sky which was great and there were a bunch of Wilco fans in Jay Leno’s audience but a TV studio performance can’t hold a candle to seeing them perform live in a concert setting. The guys got on the Wilco bus after the taping and were off to tonight’s gig in Denver as they continue their tour. My sister and nephews left yesterday, ending three weeks of family togetherness.
Now I’m back at Farmers Market, wearing a Wilco T-shirt (oy!) and eager to return to my normal life, as soon as I remember what that is. It's definitely time to throw myself back into my work. While I’ll never have the experience of being a rock star, God knows, I will carry with me the memory of being around such exciting, fulfulling artistic collaborations and I will work hard to simulate such a feeling in my own life as a writer and editor.