Wilco at the Val Air Ballroom (Des Moines) & State Theater (Minneapolis). Opening act: Nick Lowe.
Val Air Ballroom setlist: One Sunday Morning, Poor Places, Art of Almost, I Might, Misunderstood, Capitol City, Company in My Back, Born Alone, At Least That’s What You Said, Black Moon, Impossible Germany, California Stars, I’ll Fight, Handshake Drugs, Box Full of Letters, Dawned On Me, I’m Always In Love, Hummingbird, (Encore): Whole Love, War on War, Shot in the Arm, Heavy Metal Drummer, I’m The Man Who Loves You, Red-Eyed and Blue, I Got You (At the End of the Century), Outtasite (Outta Mind), (Encore #2): Cruel to Be Kind (with Nick Lowe)
I’m going out on a limb and guessing that Jeff Tweedy enjoyed the frantic, final 30 seconds of the greatest Beatles song ever, ‘A Day in the Life’. Song after song from the super-tight Wilco on these 3 nights featured a concurrent clash of guitar feedback, frantic bass, pounding drums and screaming guitars. While sounding chaotic, you get this feeling that its all calculated, and yes, it is. It takes Wilco away from the obvious and growing (to me) Dylan-esque persona of Tweedy and Wilco, and transforms them into something even more unpredictable. One minute you’re bathed in a 3 minute pop acoustic gem and seconds later it sounds like the apocalypse is coming as the amps get a workout or two. When melody stops chaos begins, and when chaos ends you sigh, wave your head back and forth like Stevie Wonder and just say “wow”, as you settle back into your seat and watch Tweedy strum one of his eight guitars for the night. They merge into the next tune as you catch your breath and squeeze water out of the plastic seat handles. Welcome to the mind of Jeff Tweedy!
The overlooked instrument in the Wilco bag of tricks is Tweedy’s voice. His backing band, while worthy, are merely supporting actors in the Jeff Tweedy Show. His voice carries every track as it does on record – a difficult feat nonetheless. You never fall back in your chair saying “Dude, he sounds so much better on record”. This man cares how he sounds. Watching Liam Gallagher scream his way through a dodgy Beady Eye set the night before helped me realize the ever-growing greatness of Tweedy. He walks in shoes that most others will never fit into. The beauty of his live show onstage is that it’s the great equalizer when listening to his new material and his old. No longer are the sonic differences between records made 18 years ago and his new material present. They bask in new arrangements with each show featuring a different setlist from a catalog that artists pray for. Songs that feature acoustic touches on record get the electric treatment onstage. Folk hits turn into rockers and Tweedy’s voice resonates. One glance downward on the main floor looks like a parade of bobblehead dolls – absorbing every tune, fully engaged with Tweedy and his occasional sharp wit and humor. On this night in Minneapolis his target was a young girl in the front row – barely 9 years old, “Now go make sure you tell all your friends about us because my fans are getting really old”.
Let’s put Wilco in their proper place. In the pantheon of current rock bands I’ll take them over U2 and Coldplay any day of the week. Bono hasn’t written an important lyric since 1991 and Coldplay is at least smart enough to know they aren’t good enough. Kudos to Coldplay for the ability to recognize some ineptitude. So we’re left with Radiohead, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, but who else belongs at that level? The White Stripes are retired, R.E.M. packed it in finally, and indie groups like Death Cab and the Decemberists just don’t have a catalog or live act that measures up close with Wilco. Pearl Jam still fires on most cylinders but they don’t have a Jeff Tweedy. Who does? Um, well, no one quite frankly unless your name is Thom Yorke or Jim James.