It’s been a while. The last time I saw Wilco was on their last European tour in Berlin almost exactly five years ago. Berlin is one of my favourite cities and Wilco are pretty much my favourite band so the opportunity to see them there with my mate Phil was just too good to miss.
Here I am in 2016 and another opportunity to see Wilco abroad, this time in Stockholm. I love going to gigs abroad. I find it fascinating to compare the experience to back in the UK. How does the crowd interact with the band? How to the band react to the audience? What is the gig etiquette? I have friends who enjoy collecting football grounds. I can see the appeal but I would only do it in a neutral environment. As a Wolverhampton Wanderers fan, the glow of seeing the team play in a new environment would quickly recede given the probable poor quality of their performance.
The band have kept themselves busy both individually and collectively in the period between gigs. There have been solo projects. I saw Jeff Tweedy play at the London Palladium with his son Spencer and then a solo acoustic set which was a lovely evening. Nels Cline continues to release varied ways of showing his guitar skills, the latest being his first LP on Blue Note.
The band went quiet for a few years, releasing a double CD career retrospective and an outtake box set. And then out of nowhere came last year’s “Star Wars” LP, a free download which I reviewed here. 2016 has brought a new album, “Schmilco”. Whilst “Star Wars” was a crunchy glam stomp of an LP, “Schmilco” is somewhat calmer and sweeter, and a lot more acoustic. A Tyrannosauras Rex LP rather than “Star Wars” T.Rex vibe.
Wilco were playing in the Globen complex. It is a collection of concert and exhibition spaces about a 15 minute metro ride from the centre of Stockholm. It is a yin and yang place. Whilst the outside of the arena is a hemisphere, the interior is just a flat rectangular box. That said, the sound was immaculate, the sight lines very good and there was plenty capacity in the arena to hold the audience. Any British gig goers would have noticed the lack of bumping and barging and general good manners on display. One guy in front of me even asked if the people behind him if they could see okay. Call me old before my time (and a few have), but it was a much more enjoyable experience. There was no perpetual fear of a pint of beer being chucked over you (possibly to do with the high price of alcohol here), I didn’t get elbowed or bumped once and no one chatted away during the set, aside from passing comment to their neighbours about what was happening on stage. I got talking to a lovely Swedish guy (Bjorn – I kid you not) and his wife, who had seen the band on a few occasions. I got the impression that we weren’t alone in attending a few gigs by the band.
What was apparent was that time is dulling the band’s sense of innovation and adventure. Whilst the acoustic nature of the “Schmilco” material may signal a more gentle era, in a live environment Wilco’s ability to switch from order to chaos and back again remains undimmed. The old favourites for this spectacular controlled madness were stellar. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Via Chicago” were breathtaking, the latter in particular drawing performance from Glen Kotche on the drums that were up there with an Elvin Jones solo. Nels Cline was sensational as usual, “The Art Of Almost” and “Impossible Germany” were as per usual spectacular showcases for his talents, the latter in particular extended to include an ever mesmerising solo with the Wilco guitarist all wielding Fenders for a change. “Bull Black Nova” was just magnificent with Nels’ solo on a National guitar a sublime surprise. Pat Sansome contributed some country honk for “Box Full Of Letters”, the only track from Wilco’s debut LP.
Just like when I last saw them in Berlin, the show began on a low key note with just Nels and Jeff on stage for “Normal American Kids”, before the rest of the band joined for a gentle “If Ever I Was A Child”. The counterpoint between light and shade was evident throughout the show. A Stooges like “Pickled Ginger” (Stirratt and Tweedy going full tilt) was followed by “Misunderstood”, not with guitar freakouts as before but with a banjo and a sense of resignation rather than rage.
Jeff Tweedy mentioned during the evening that having had no hits has left them free to revisit any part of their catalogue. Tracks from everyone of their LPs got an airing, with “A Ghost Is Born” yielding four songs, including a tender “Hummingbird” which Tweedy sang without his guitar.
“Random Name Generator”, the 10cc-like song from “Star Wars” was an encore, showing it clearly is a favourite after just over 12 months. The band left the stage finally after almost three hours, finishing with “Kidsmoke”.
“Best band since [insert Mojo heralded classic rock artist]” plaudits are thrown around. Wilco appear to be the bridesmaids, never having achieved the critical success and commercial appeal that many of their peers have. R.E.M. and Radiohead, to name two examples, have made challenging, adventurous and accessible albums in the last thirty years and for me, Wilco are up there with both of them. I’ve resigned myself to them being a “best kept secret”. And you know what? It’s fine by me.
I’m seeing them again in London in a couple of weeks time with a few friends. It can’t come quick enough. If they are playing near you, catch them if you can. They really are one of the most extraordinary, yet unassuming, of bands.