MUSIC


Wilco @ the London Astoria
May 13, 2002
By Adam Webb

Tonight, for some reason, I'm watching Wilco play "She's a Jar," but I'm thinking Oasis. You might remember those Mancunian jokers from 1995 and (What's the Story) Morning Glory—probably the last time a UK record troubled your Hot 100. Anyway, maybe it's the Beatle-esque chord sequence, but with every imminent new release from the brothers' Gallagher comes a recurring press statement. It goes along the lines of:

"This is the future of rock. Out Beatles. Out Zeppelin. In beats. In samples. We're moonlighting with the Chemical Brothers. It's the spirit of '67. It is now. We'll drag you—screaming, kicking—to the future."

Roughly translated, this means electronic sitars and backwards guitar. (Ravi Shankar mustn't be returning calls at present.) The spirit of '67, period. No risks and certainly no deviations from the well-trodden formula. The band will headline all the big outdoor festivals and the crowd will demand (and get) all those big sing-a-long Britpop anthems to take their minds off mortgages and middle-age spread. Fast forward five years and no doubt we'll be talking Bangladesh and moustaches. Another thirteen and original guitarist Bonehead will take a bullet outside the Dakota.

Who knows the source of this conservatism? Is it driven by the billionaire record company concerned about balance sheets or the multi-millionaire rock band petrified of losing fans? In either case, it's not a finger you can point at Jeff Tweedy.

***

Two songs before his deviation into Summerteeth territory, their 1999 should've-been-breakthrough LP, Wilco's head honcho is lost picking the acoustic notes to "Radio Cure" as random waves of keyboard static wash through the empty spaces. It sounds nothing like the Paul Westerberg-isms of their supposed alt-country peers. Next up and he's crooning, "You have to lose/You have to learn how to die/If you wanna be alive." He still hasn't muttered a word to his audience. The gig is at least 30 minutes old.

Both songs come from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Their now infamous fourth album saw Wilco flushed out the back door of Warner/Reprise for apparent nonconformity to the tune of $50,000. Small change for a set of finished master tapes. After streaming the songs from www.wilcoworld.net, they revolved through the front door of Nonesuch Records, another Warner subsidiary. It's now rightly recognized as a minor masterpiece. Such is the state of the record business in 2002.

God knows what Reprise were worried about. Probably the involvement of avant garde production genius Jim O'Rourke, but the official line was a lack of singles—hardly a prerequisite for a rock band these days. In any case the tracks "Heavy Metal Drummer" and the aforementioned "War on War" are receiving airplay in the UK and the US. The notion that YHF was a Metal Machine Music, or even a Kid A, is laughable.

In fact, YHF is the antithesis of Kid A—that's what makes it so great. While Radiohead build walls with computers, Wilco sound lost in the machine. Rather than an all-purveying glumness, Tweedy portrays a living, breathing humanity on songs like "Poor Places" and "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," and humour too. His, for the most part, is the lone voice of emotion in a stone cold corporate world, the alienation of history unfolding on CNN. "They cried all overseas and it makes no difference to me/When it's hot in the poor places tonight/I'm not going outside." A million times more relevant to 2002 than Ryan Adams' Gold, YHF is rock's own version of "The Wasteland."

Yet the Wilco we see tonight is a schizophrenic beast, caught between the constraints of the past and the possibilities of the future. Out on the peripheries one moment, playing Woody Guthrie the next. And while the band can't be faulted, especially new powerhouse drummer Glenn Kotche, there's a disjointed absurdity to the proceedings, as if Bowie resurrected the orange Ziggy frightwig during his Thin White Duke period. Old cousin cowpoke just doesn't sit right beside Tweedy's great leap forward.

That's not saying the likes of "Shot in the Arm" don't sound tremendous. They do. It's just that the atmosphere never truly soars. Played next to YHF the old songs sound like a reversion to cliché.

That also goes for all those big band endings to the rockier Being There numbers and all those pointless guitar solos. I guess it's Alternative Rock Performers' Prerogative (see also: the cigarette lodged in top of fretboard) that guitarists can intermittently pull out every indulgent ounce of feedback when words fail. That's what we pay our 12.50 and queue in the Tottenham Court Road rain for. But when was the last time that was so exciting? 1986? Maybe watching four grown men play instruments and that's it (actually, 137 bulbs did light up during an encore of "California Stars") just isn't enough anymore. All I know is, watching Tweedy in the spotlight howling, "What was I thinking when I let go of you," with virtually no accompaniment was a darn sight more intriguing.

So then, Wilco in concert: a bit of a bird with a broken wing. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an important genius record and may just be the best of 2002, but it's the journey from here on that'll be interesting. Maybe Tweedy should retire to the studio bunker and send us regular transmissions from there. He certainly looks uncomfortable on stage.

These fingers remain crossed until he gets both feet on the Moon. We probably need Tweedy more than he needs us. If YHF became a career aberration—their Satanic Majesties Request—that would be a loss for all of us.