Wilco vs. Super Bowl? No contest!
“We are all Jews at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas,” Jeff Tweedy announced to a cheering audience Sunday night during Wilco’s scorching show at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. On Super Bowl Sunday, it was wonderful to be with thousands of others celebrating our favorite band the way others celebrate a favorite team. The difference is that our team always wins.
I have nothing against sports. I’ve enjoyed playing sports, I occasionally go to games, and I love attending my kids’ games. I’m just a fair weather fan of sports at best. When a local team is doing well I’ll pay a little more attention, and attend a few more games to cheer them on. But my passion is music.
A favorite band is like a favorite team to me. Just as a sports fan might wear their favorite team’s jersey, decorate their “man cave” with team posters and memorabilia, read the sports pages, watch replays, and travel to see them play, I wear my favorite bands’ t-shirts, decorated my home office with their posters and memorabilia, read books and articles, watch live concert videos, and travel to see them play.
I’m not one of those music fans who is looking for the next new thing or seeking random inspiration over the radio. I either fall in love with songwriters and bands, or I am ambivalent. I don’t fall in love often. For those I love, I become fiercely loyal. Just as a sports fan knows all their team’s statistics, I know the data on my bands. I have every album, and have rated every song on iTunes. I collect demos and studio outtakes, fascinated to hear the development of each song. I collect live bootlegs, listening for those special nights, rare set lists, and best renditions of songs. I know their personal stories and the stories behind their songs, albums, and tours. There is always a soundtrack playing in my head, and they are the ones most often on it.
There are only a few dozen songwriters and bands I’ve fallen deeply in love with. At the very top of that list are The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and Wilco.
I was first turned on to Wilco twenty years ago by a colleague, but it took a few more years and albums before they hooked me. Then I saw them in concert, and it was all over. I’ve seen Jeff Tweedy (the songwriter and leader) or the band over two dozen times, and their concerts are one of my happy places.
Jeff Tweedy is the heart and soul of the band. When not playing with the band, he tours solo or with his son (with whom he made an amazing album in tribute to his wife while she was battling cancer). His songs are intimate, poignant, and lovely when played on acoustic guitar. He once said that you should know what a song means without the lyrics, and that he hopes his lyrics don’t get in the way of that meaning. His words don’t. He plays with words and symbols like a poet, and conveys wit, insight, and authenticity. His most constant theme is how music itself inspires, comforts, and transforms us. He lets his fans know he gets it when he sings, “This is an aural arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on, Wilco will love you baby.”
The other five members of the ensemble propel Jeff’s songs, and transform them into almost orchestral compositions that blend everything from free jazz and punk to blues and bluegrass. Nels Cline’s guitar playing and Glenn Kotsche’s drumming are in a league of their own, and they conjure sounds, notes, and speeds from their instruments that are baffling. Pat Sansone (multi-instrumentalist) and Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards, effects) add layers of color and texture to each song. John Stirratt, the bassist, holds the rhythmic groove and foundation of the music, charging them forward and pulling them back amid the melodies and noise. Jeff sits at the center, strumming, picking, and singing – I once remember a critic writing – like his soul thirsts for water.
Their versatility and professionalism are legendary. To celebrate their twentieth anniversary in Chicago in 2014, the band played almost their entire catalogue of songs – including rare B-sides and outtakes. They performed almost 180 unique songs in one week, nailing them all. In 2013, they played an all request covers show. From The Beatles, Television, and Velvet Underground to Thin Lizzy, Abba, and Daft Punk, they played every song like they owned it (this and the 2014 shows are available to download on their website). They often invite guests to the stage from Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe to Richard Thompson and Bob Weir, and they become the best backup band in the world. I’ve seen Wilco or Jeff solo perform 193 different songs. Yes, I know that. There are many bands I wish I had seen way back when. I want to see Wilco now.
They make it easy to love them. They were fired from their label for refusing to alter the integrity of their masterpiece album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was recognized by Rolling Stone Magazine as the third best album of the entire decade from 2000 to 2010. They now own their own label, and released their new album, Star Wars, as a surprise and made it free for fans to download. When John Stirratt was asked why they toured minor league baseball parks one summer, he answered, “We can charge less for tickets.” They curate their own music and art festival, Solid Sound, every other summer in North Adams, MA, making it a creative, family-friendly, sustainable event that also supports local businesses and nonprofits in a town that needs it. They support many other causes, and Jeff regularly auctions off living room concerts (he once played 44 songs for the winning donors), and he annually plays two fundraising shows in Chicago where the first 30 people in line each night choose the songs. I’ll stop there, but my list is far longer. Find me a sports team with that level of integrity, care, and conscience.
In Washington, D.C. Sunday night, Wilco loved us again. They opened by playing through their entire new album, Star Wars. Jennifer and I had the opportunity to see them debut their new album in Chicago last summer, and the songs have evolved to new levels of energy and texture that will make them welcome additions to future set lists. They then blazed through a dozen of their best older songs as if each one was a closing number. For their second encore, they sat hootenanny style around shared microphones and jammed through five more, beginning with the brilliant “Misunderstood,” and closing with a beautiful sing-a-long “Space Oddity” tribute to David Bowie. We were ecstatic.
My team always wins!
(The Washington Post’s glowing review)
(Thanks to Tom Branen for the tickets!!)
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