Wilco, St. Paul’s Palace Theater, November 2019
Wilco’s current 6-man band roster has been making music together for 15 years. Front man, Jeff Tweedy, is one of the best songwriters of my generation. (He’s just a few months younger than I, born in 1967.) Wilco’s Nels Cline (guitarist) and Glenn Kotche (drummer/percussionist) are two of the best rock musicians living. Wilco has played thousands of gigs over the years. They are incredibly hard working. They are a truly great band.
There are two types of Wilco fans. The first is the group of casual listeners who focus mainly on their classics (Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born). The second are diehard Wilco fans who listen to everything Tweedy does and will stand in line in 10 degree weather for hours to get up close and personal for every single performance they can possibly attend. (At the last show I attended in November, I was waiting next to people who drove down from Ontario and then stood at the rail next to a mom and her son from Ohio.)
Actually, there’s also a third group. The people people who hate Wilco and just don’t really care.
To be clear, I have always been in the first group. I haven’t always liked Wilco. Their sound occasionally borders on frat boy classic rock and other times is too distorted for me to enjoy. During past live performances, they’ve wreaked electronic havoc with songs recorded primarily acoustically. They deconstruct, throwing sonic collages of a song at you as if to say, “see if you can handle this.” I once watched Nels bang at his guitar with a violin bow. Wilco can come across as rough, raw and unrehearsed.
But then who needs constant studio elegance?
Well, a lot of people it seems. Labels have messed with their sound trying to make it “poppier” yet still “clever.” One record label dropped them right before the release of an album because they didn’t feel it was commercially viable. Tweedy’s response was to release it on his site to stream– for free.
And this was way back in 2001; no one did that then.
This battle (and a self-admitted lack of self-confidence) has driven Tweedy somewhat crazy. Trying to fit in and still make music that he can live with has worn him out. He has suffered from horrendous migraines, self-medicated with booze and painkillers, taken his angst out on his audiences, and has had some debilitating panic attacks right before major performances. He’s been hospitalized, through rehab, and spent a stint in a half-way house. Jeff Tweedy can be kind of a dick. But he’s trying and he’s honest.
He’s produced some awesome music and some not so great stuff. Each album is different from the last. He’s constantly growing and changing. He’s a better guitar player than he was in 1994. He’s a producer comfortable in a 2019 recording studio. And his singing has become (especially on this last album) hauntingly lovely. He has that nasal, scratchy thing going on, reminiscent of Young or Dylan.
The writer George Saunders describes Tweedy as “our great, wry, American consolation poet” in the liner notes for Tweedy’s solo album, Warm. Saunders goes on to say, “to see him play is to find yourself in a crowd of people being actively consoled—being moved, reassured, validated, made to feel like part of a dynamic aural friendship. Jeff told me once that what he’s trying to communicate to his listener is, ‘You’re O.K. You’re not alone. I’m singing to you, but I also hear you’… Jeff is, to my mind, a warrior for kindness, who has made tenderness an acceptable rock-and-roll virtue.”
The latest Wilco album Ode to Joy seems like a new beginning and reflects Saunder’s sentiment. The album’s title alludes to a movement in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony but other than the name, there is no apparent commonality. This is their first album since 2016. It’s a lovely, meditative work with a sparseness that is welcome in today’s over-dubbed, systematic, cold, factory-produced world of music where melody is reduced to a trickle and lyrics are dumbed down to resembling nothing more than a clever tweet.
Ode to Joy is quiet, pretty and loose. You can almost hear the wood hit the snare. Bassist John Stirratt (the only other founding Wilco member besides Tweedy) calls the album “essentially an off-kilter folk record.” Lyrically it is thought provoking. It sounds sad, but then brightens. It is joyful. This album has it’s own heart beat. I’m obsessed.
Wilco had taken a long hiatus, about a year and half, and it was difficult getting everyone back from their own gigs and into their studio in Chicago, the Loft. So Tweedy and Kotche headed in to start. The intention was to lay the groundwork and wait for the others but what they did ended up being the record. In one interview, Tweedy says that he told Kotche, “Glenn, you don’t have anything to prove to anybody about being a competent musician, or even a virtuoso. What can you say to me with just one hit of a drum?” Evidently, Kotche can say a lot.
Tweedy has been making music and producing for 3 decades. He knows what he is doing even when he doesn’t. Kotche has earned a reputation as a credible contemporary composer having composed for and/or performed with the Kronos Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-stars, and So Percussion. This was definitely a good way to start.
The rest of the band joined them and played over the tracks. Tweedy has been criticized in the past for not fully utilizing the talent of his band. But guitarist Nels Cline reports exactly the opposite. He says that he felt creative within the confines of the simple style of the album.
Ode to Joy is a drummer’s album with Kotche’s hands all over it. Often, the drummer just provides a back beat. But the drumset is an amazing instrument and it’s spectacular when someone really takes it to the edges. Kotche goes even further. He knows how to lay it back leaving plenty of room to showcase other instruments and Tweedy’s simple, yet hard fought falsetto.
The show at the Palace this past November was a different Wilco. They were all about the work: serious, creative, and on point. Tweedy was serious and less chatty than in the past. A group known for breaking curfews, they hit out 29 songs finishing up with a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” with Duluth’s own Low sitting in. We were mesmerized. The epic “Impossible Germany” with one of my favorite lines, “This is what love is for, to be out of place, gorgeous and alone, face to face,” was tighter than I’ve ever heard it before. Cline lit it up. The 3-part guitar melody breathtakingly beautiful. Goose bump moment.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first time that Wilco played a gig outside their home-base Chicago. It was at 7th St. Entry in 1994. Tweedy took a moment during his November Palace show to reminisce during the encore, “If there’s ever a place that feels like home away from home for Wilco, it’s Minneapolis-St. Paul,” he said between two favorites “California Stars” and “The Late Greats.” “I’m not saying that to butter you up,” he added, “We don’t really like home.”
Awhile ago, I was in a bar with friends and the song “Box Full of Letters” came on the jukebox. Someone was overheard saying, quite loudly, “I love this song. I love the Replacements.” Let’s just say, I’ve never seen an argument break out so fast among so many people so quickly. THAT guy will never again forget that THAT is a Wilco song.