I was able to catch up on a couple of Tivo’d recordings over the weekend, one of which was Wilco’s 2005 appearance on Austin City Limits. I also see that The Fort has put forth his say as well and it is purely coincidental that we’ve both written about it and we both think “I’m A Wheel” is embarassing drivel. Their performance was solid, but I find myself repeating the same thing over and over and over when I see them: they are too artistic for their own good these days (see below). Now that that’s out of the way……..
I remember standing at The Paradise one October evening in 1995, enjoying the hell out of a Wilco show and, in all likelihood, feeling very warm courtesy of The Latrobe Brewing Company . It was very, very late on the A.M. tour and I was probably at the very peak of my admiration for all things “alt.country.” Gosh, I hate that term. Anyway, the triumvirate of Wilco, Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo were the three bands that had made my world go ’round from 1994-1997 and I was there in the throes of it.
The “encore” found the band stumbling back out to roll out a couple of new songs they had been working on and I remember thinking how sorta dumb it was that lead singer Jeff Tweedy also changed his clothes, moving into a Denver Broncos football jersey. It was then that they pushed into “Misunderstood,” a song that more-or-less flipped that band into another dimension and/or direction. The rootsy, cutsey sound was gone, replaced by something more brooding, more adventurous. It was spectacular.
And that’s how I felt about “Being There,” the sprawling double-album which shot out in so many different directions that it was……confusing. Miraculous. Interesting. It was Jeff Tweedy’s scream therapy (his Plastic Ono Band, if you will), an expression of all the music he’d listened to and been influenced by since childhood; an expression of his newly-found indepedance from Uncle Tupelo & Jay Farrar, whose talent and mildly mysterious aura, theoretically, smothered Tweedy and rendered him esteemless. I’ve since cooled down a little on the album, but it definitely remains my favorite Wilco work, despite my two favorite Wilco songs being on “Summerteeth” (“We’re Just Friends” and “Shot In The Arm”).
Later that night, I found myself at Mama Kin (ugh) with a gang of friends, because the Continental Drifters were playing a late show and I certainly didn’t want to miss it (really, I was insane about shows). I got there one song into the set and, standing in the back, started to take it all in when I turned around and saw Tweedy come in by himself. Normally, I would know full well that meeting people you admire from afar is almost always an excercise in disappointment. However, the Latrobe Brewing Company had been hard at work that night and I said “to hell with it.”
Much to my surprise, Tweedy was engaging, coherent, intelligent and seemed relatively down-to-Earth. We had a terribly interesting conversation, mostly about music and the hype around the whole Son Volt vs. Wilco thing and how it affected him emotionally. “Being There” really was Tweedy on the doctor’s couch, not lyrically, not musically, but just……..as a human. A free man, if you will. I ended up getting his phone number because when he found out I worked for Rounder, he wanted to see if I could send him some of their children’s records for his very young son. I ended up talking to him a couple more times and sending some of those records over to him, but we never connected again after that. Quit while I’m ahead, I guess. Since then, he’s had some problems of his own that don’t need detailing, but it appears he’s gotten past those, too (he doesn’t appear to have gotten past having the Elvis circa ’73 hair yet, though. Yikes).
To make a long blog post short, many things have happened to the band since then. For example, they sell out large halls now, had a movie and a book made about them, landed some albums in the Billboard Top 30 and are, whether they like it or not, America’s answer to Radiohead. Their music gets more and more experimental, which is all well and good, really. You need to follow the muse, wherever it takes you. But there have been way too many lineup changes in the band to think all’s well and good in Wilcoland and I just keep going back to my original mantra: too artistic for their own good now. So while I do truly enjoy listening to that band (their performance of “At Least That’s What You Said” on ACL was terrific), I sometimes just wish Wilco would make some more songs that feel true, instead of songs that beep, whirr and ding – and sometimes feel true, but mostly feel like a band that’s trying too hard.