Friday, Sept. 21, 2012
Greek Theatre, Berkeley
Better than: Having kids.
Hey, Wilco! How the hell are ya? Long time no talk! How's the family? Golly, it feels like it's been ages since we caught up. Ever since Wilco supposedly stuck a pin in its "experimental period," following up 2004's A Ghost is Born with the relatively straightforward Sky Blue Sky in 2006, it feels like the band has disappeared down the rabbit-hole of "dad rock."
A band that already had a pretty darned good career going (to this day, they still close with "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)," their modest 1997 modern rock hit), Wilco underwent a veritable docu-drama to release 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (chronicled in the actual documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart). But in the span of two subsequent albums, they went from being featured in the hip bins at Amoeba to being featured on the counter at Starbucks, never falling so much as settling down. Unlike some colleagues, I only gave cursory listens to later Wilco records, turning up my nose at what seemed like Frankensteinian mash-ups of worldly country-rock with buzzsaw sound effects (but, as it turned out, are actually quite adventurous and successful works). I had to Google the names of the band's latest two records, even though one of them has the easy to remember title Wilco (The Album). And I remember liking it when it came out.
Friday's show at the Greek Theatre, the first of two nights at the Berkeley venue, reacquainted this writer with Wilco and the band's fanbase. For a band with seemingly nothing left to prove, Saturday's show had all the freshness of a prototype, a proof of concept.
The current incarnation of the group, which includes mainstay avant-garde and jazz guitarist Nels Cline, John Stirratt (bass) and Glenn Kotche (drums), throws down on new and old tunes with the same fresh eyes and ears, bringing new dimensions to songs as varied as "A Shot in the Arm" (from 1999's Summerteeth), "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" (from A Ghost Is Born) and the unconventional rhythms and drum machine beats of "Art of Almost." "Spiders," best described as a lounge-inspired Krautrock/country romp, seemed Friday a little more in debt to Station to Station-era Bowie -- which, yeah, it's been indebted to Bowie from the moment it came out in '04 -- but the lineage made itself apparent in the band's boozy nightclub interpretation of the song's metronomic beat.
So yeah, they still bring it. And the band's fans are all savvy enough to lap it all in, though these guys own their "dad rock" rep perhaps better than ever. In addition to the walking BABYBJÖRN advertisements, the bros and sorority girls and the hippies and middle-of-the-road cultural ciphers in attendance all threw down to Wilco. Everyone seemed into at least one aspect of the show, with Wilco obliging new delights like sound oscillator freakouts to "War On War" just as readily as encouraging sing-alongs and bachelorette group dances to "Heavy Metal Drummer." Number two or three in a night full of standouts was delivered by a Sky Blue Sky cut, with guitarist Nels Cline absolutely uncorking with an extended, improvisational solo on "Impossible Germany."
Which brings me to my next point: Nels Cline is the most important member of Wilco right now. Sure, Tweedy may write the songs and lend them his signature off-kilter warble, but every second Cline is up on stage is a second in which he threatens to steal the show. Cline is responsible for lead guitar duties, which in his world means not only "conventional" rock lead lines but also tending to the kinds of little fills and licks and noise pollution that armchair critics have variously argued as Wilco's subversions of musical Americana, sonic manifestations of post-Sept. 11 violence, or just drugged-out country riffs. Wherever they come from, in Cline's hands they're something else: a litany of sonic violence played out over pickups, behind his Jazzmaster's bridge, obfuscated behind pedal-driven effects or tossed out, bone-dry, in front of the audience. Tweedy (still a stone-cold showman and rocking a sort of Heisenberg hat) and bassist Stirratt handle the two-part harmonies that have defined Wilco's sound for so long; Cline's guitar is now the third voice in that chorus.