I am becoming increasingly self conscious when I write about Wilco. Almost 50 years old, it feels a wee bit immature to cast myself as fan boy.
However it does bear repeating.
For my money (and I’ve spent a fair bit on them over the years), Wilco are simply the best band in the world. And if you can’t quite agree with me on that assessment, I can offer a qualified version.
Wilco are the best live band in the world.
This was another special night. Their first London gig in five years, my second gig of the Schmilco tour (I’d seen them already in Stockholm here) and the last night of their 2016 world tour. It had a distinctly “last day of term” feel to it. The Wilco road crew had taken over the band’s Instagram account for the last few days, giving an insight into the close knit community that keeps the show on the road. The self flagellation over the Trump election victory was put on the back burner mostly and “Ashes Of American Flags” was dropped from the setlist.
But there was one sign and one sign alone that showed this was the closest Wilco get to party night – Drummer Glenn Kotche’s drum drop for the introduction of “I’m The Man Who Loves You” was back.
For those of you unaware, onstage the song features a long distorted introduction building to a thundering buzz. In recent years, this has been the cue for Kotche to climb on his drums, arms aloft. And then he drops to his seat, and instantly starts the song without missing a beat. It’s a feat of physical and musical prowess that I think Glenn’s consigned to history for fear of injury. It’s some spectacle though and kickstarts the run for home for most of the band’s gig. Here’s a brilliant explanation and version of the song from Wilco’s own festival where the band suggest it be retired.
Kotche is an extraordinary drummer. Respected for his role in Wilco , he is also a much lauded writer and performer of percussion based classical music. He likes the other members of Wilco has got the chops.
The set in this instance was pretty similar to the Stockholm gig, starting with the low key “Normal American Kids” with the first blast of electricity really coming from “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” morphing into an electrifying “Art Of Almost”. The highlights were similar. “Misunderstood” retained it’s country makeover, “Via Chicago” retained the fragile relationship between order and chaos, discord and melody. The pinnacle was “Impossible Germany”. This has been a consistent fixture in Wilco’s set since it appeared on 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky” LP, the band’s first studio album with Nels Cline in the band. It has always been an opportunity for Cline to stretch out but this tour has added another section to his solo. It is a tribute to his skill as a guitarist that there still isn’t an ounce of fat in the performance, despite it pushing the ten minute mark. It is absolutely thrilling, especially to see Nels lose himself deeper and deeper in the song. There were at least three spontaneous waves of applause at different points of his solos.
The beauty of Cline’s guitar playing is that he is capable of exercising restraint. He is blessed with extraordinary talent but he can dial it back such as he did on “Cry All Day”. He is the most considered of guitarists, only adding to the song when absolutely necessary. Like Kotche, his background outside of rock (in Cline’s instance, jazz and improvised music) adds to the Wilco mix.
I attended with my good mate Raymond Gorman, guitarist and singer in the excellent Everlasting Yeah. I commented to Ray that, embarrassingly, I could recognise the song that Wilco were about to play by the guitars that their techs were bringing out. He said “go on then” and rather sadly, I got a 100% correct score. Maybe I’ve seen them enough – no, scrub that.
There were three songs that were included that didn’t get an airing in Sweden. “Pot Kettle Black” was played midway through, one of the less performed “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” songs. It was a joy to hear tonight, with the treatment bringing out the 80s New Order/Cure influences that the song wears lightly. The other two additions were the final encore. There was a lo-fi version of “Summerteeth’s” “Shot In The Arm” after the band were joined by support guitarist William Tyler for a ramshackle “California Stars”. Band members plus Tyler picked up a solo, giving Michael Jorgensen a rare keyboard spotlight and Pat Sansome gave us his second banjo highlight of the evening. It felt like that section at the end of “The Last Waltz” when everyone comes back on stage for “I Shall Be Released”.
And then it struck me. Rather than the lazy “Wilco are the American Radiohead” comparisons that get rolled out, Wilco are closer to being the heirs to The Band’s musical legacy. They’ve got the musicianship, the tight relationship with each other and the way to take the American roots music and put it in on a different trajectory.
I asked Raymond for his thoughts after the gig:
Wilco have never let me down live.
They never give you less than 100% commitment.
You never feel short-changed.
They’re a well-oiled machine but not super slick.
They can be pop, they most def rock and they can do soulful too.
They do audience participation without it being cheesy (very difficult).
They are an unpretentious and honest reflection of the true American heartland. They are the rightful heirs to REM’s crown.
They always guarantee the punters a great time especially in these days of ticket prices of £35 and more.
They have so many great songs in their canon now to choose from that it must be problematic doing the set-list.
I go home very happy even though they don’t play my favourite song of theirs.
“When the mysteries we believe in / Aren’t dreamed enough to be true”
(Wilco, “Side With The Seeds”)
So there you have it.
Don’t just take my word for it. Next time Wilco are in your town, in your country, on your continent – take a punt. Stump up £40 or however many euros, dollars or yen of your hard earned money and see them.
I would recommend them unreservedly – and I don’t say that about many things in 2016.