Photography by Heather Kaplan
Last night, Wilco treated their second sold-out show at Stubb’s BBQ as if it were their last — namely because it was. After touring North America for half a year, the Chicago rockers furiously capped off their lengthy road trip where it all began: The Lone Star State. “This is the best place to end a tour,” singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy suggested, “also a great place to begin a tour.”
He’s not kidding. Having witnessed dozens of hometown fans sing “Jesus, Etc.” or “Handshake Drugs” or “A Shot in the Arm” word for word over the last decade living in Chicago, I have to applaud the powerful fanaticism that was alive and well in Austin, Texas. Granted, “Via Chicago” wasn’t exactly the same (and relatively short at that), but come on.
All evening, a soothing breeze washed over the balmy crowd, some of whom arrived early to catch Nashville guitar maestro William Tyler. From under a ball cap, and proudly wearing a Grateful Dead tee, he delicately weaved his nimble fingers over the six-string to tell instrumental stories about love, driving, the end of the world, and ghosts.
There was a somber aura to Tyler, who was quite humble for his recent experience with Wilco though appeared bummed out to see it come to an end. Prior to Behold the Spirit‘s “Tears of Saints”, he thanked Tweedy and co. for having him, adding: “They are, as you know, the most astounding band in the world.”
That wasn’t the last we’d see of Tyler, who would later join Wilco for a rousing rendition of their past Billy Bragg collaboration, “Airline to Heaven”. Watching the young guitarist follow the lead of a wise sage like Nels Cline was akin to something out of Star Wars, which by the way, the band once again performed in full.
Earlier this summer, I had the surprise fortune of seeing Wilco perform their latest album at Pitchfork Music Festival not only for the first time ever but no less than 24 hours after it had been both announced and released to the world. Because they’re Wilco, there were little flaws in the execution, but the difference months later is night and day.
This particular performance of Star Wars oozed with confidence and nuance, no doubt fueled by a crowd that’s at least taken a song or two to heart. Of note were the punchy “Random Name Generator”, the cyclical “You Satellite”, the sunny “Taste the Ceiling”, and the rather hypnotic (and aptly titled) “Magnetized”. You’ll hear these for years to come.
Frankly, you’ll probably hear everything. As evidenced by their 32-song setlist, which featured not one but two encores, there isn’t really an album, or a song, or an era of the band that they tend to ignore. That’s the beauty of Wilco and why they’re one of the best rock acts on the road — they’re so goddamn unexpected.
Even when you know they’re going to bring it, too. Take “Art of Almost”, for instance. The song’s been a staple of their setlists for close to four years now, and yet it’s never grown tedious or rote. In fact, each time they play it, they tend to somehow supersede whatever came prior. Glenn Kotche hits harder, Cline flies faster, or John Stirratt goes thicker … it’s all very orgasmic.
Too lewd? Too bad.
Look, “orgasmic” isn’t exactly uncalled for with this band. Every three or four songs, some at times side by side, capitalize on The Climb or The Loop or The Grind, building louder and louder, or softer and softer, or harder and harder until it all just lets loose. Watch Cline or Kotche’s face the next time you see ’em play “Impossible Germany”. They’re in a goddamn zone alright.
A lot of that has to do with the simple fact that they love playing music together. It might sound crazy, but it’s become something of a rare thing nowadays to see a veteran act of Wilco’s caliber actually enjoy what they’re doing. Maybe it’s their Midwestern spirit, but not a soul on stage could be described as anything else but “kinetic.”
How Wilco closed their shows on this jaunt speaks to that nature: After rattling their amps for two hours, the band offers a final encore featuring a stripped-down, acoustic-style jugband of sorts. This is something they’ve been doing since their Chicago residency last December, and it’s a savvy move on their part.
Tonight, it felt essential. As a half hour dissolved into minutes and minutes became seconds, Tweedy, Cline, Kotche, Stirratt, Pat Sansone (on banjo, no less), and Mikael Jorgensen (on melodica, wouldn’t you know) offered curiously nostalgic flashes to one another while they strummed through a seemingly unplugged rendition of “A Shot in the Arm”.
Anyone who’s ever heard the song knows how it sounds on tape — the hallway piano, the thunderous percussion, the needling guitars — and knows that it’s a very loud and vivid song. That didn’t matter to them, or to us, or to anyone with a pair of eyes and ears watching and listening as Wednesday became Thursday, September turned to October, and a tour folded into memory.
See you next year, fellas.
Random Name Generator
The Joke Explained
Taste the Ceiling
Where Do I Begin
King of You
Art of Almost
A Magazine Called Sunset
I’m Always in Love
I’m the Man That Loves You
Airline to Heaven (Billy Bragg and Wilco cover)
Let’s Not Get Carried Away
War on War
We’ve Been Had (Uncle Tupelo cover)
It’s Just That Simple
Give Back the Key to My Heart (Doug Sahm cover)
A Shot in the Arm