May 9th, 2011

Loopster Live: Wilco at Verizon Wireless Theater

I have a few confessions that may or may not influence your impression of this piece. First, I was turned onto Wilco back in 1996 after reading Greg Knot’s review of Being There in Rolling Stone. Being more familiar with Sun Volt, I decided to take a flyer on the Wilco album, and at first, wasn’t thrilled with my purchase. For some reason, rather than end up at the bottom of my stack with winners like Warrant or Screaming Trees, the double disc album managed to find it’s way back into my CD player time after time and, after a while, I realized that the toned down, acoustic alt-country had actually become a favorite of mine.

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The second confession is that, instead of following the natural progression of Wilco as a band, I actually regressed into their discography. First with A.M. and then back to the precursor, Uncle Tupelo. After quite a bit of searching, I managed to track down a copy of Anodyne and a few years later, I stumbled across the seminal No Depression. So while the band continued to grow, I was backtracking into the evolution of said band. That’s not to say I didn’t keep track of their new stuff, but I wasn’t as resolute in tracking down their newer offerings as I had been in investigating their older stuff.

My final confession is that I’m old and I probably act older than I’d care to admit and standing for hours at a concert hall only reinforces that. So, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest I can continue with a free conscience.

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Living less than five minutes from Verizon Wireless can be quite convenient, especially when you’re a habitual procrastinator like myself. After a long day of work, the last thing I wanted to do was get ready to head out. Unfortunately, I had also made a promise to myself that I’d check out the opener, Smith Westerns (pictured below). As the time printed on the tickets drew closer, I finally managed to get my ass into some clean clothes and out the door. I walked into Verizon Wireless Theater with just enough time to grab a beer before the Smith Westerns took the stage.

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After being initially shocked by their waif thin appearance and Ramones-esque hair styles, I settled in and enjoyed the Smith Westerns’ set. Though it lasted only thirty minutes, they snuck in quite a few songs, enough to spur me to check them out further. With the lights only partially dimmed and playing to a less than full house, the band forged ahead in a workmanlike manner, only stopping briefly to introduce the band and let the audience know that they were from Chicago.

I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence, but when I hear a band for the first time, I have this neurotic fixation on trying to decipher their sound in terms of other bands that I’m familiar with. As I was listening to them live, I got a distinct Morrisey vibe with a twang. As if, instead of being british, he was American and grew up playing alt-country. An astute observer wondered if there was a connection between the name Smith Westerns and a western sounding Smiths, but I can almost guarantee we over-thought that one.

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In a funny twist, the Smith Westerns seemed about ready to launch into a song when they looked to the wings, abruptly stopped, and started gathering their equipment and walked offstage. The lights came up to illuminate a much more robust crowd, eagerly anticipating the headliner.

Wilco didn’t leave the crowd wanting for long as the lights went down and the stage lights illuminated the band walking onstage to begin the night with “Ashes of American Flags.” It seemed to be a bit of an interesting choice to start as the fist pumping energy from their entrance soon mellowed into a slow head bob, but they quickly brought the tempo up. What caught my attention, quite quickly, I might add, was that Wilco didn’t go Spinal Tap on us and turn the amps up to 11. Not only were my ears not bleeding, I could actually make out the lyrics, which for people who know Jeff Tweedy’s music, is one of the joys of his songwriting.

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The most impressive aspect of the show was just how musically insync the band operated, like a well-oiled machine in and out of the shifts in tempo and stops and starts. In an age of synthesized pop, it’s rare to find a band that just seems so completely spot on while pushing the envelope. Wilco could easily roll off their tour bus, play their songs as they sound on the records and cash their checks, but instead, each concert is an experience, each song an opportunity. It’s why, even though I was less familiar with the material, I could still revel in the adventure of watching the band wander down sonic roads, only to pull back into the driveway where they left you.

Musically, nobody unravels a song like Wilco. It’s one of the things that initially made an impression the first time I heard Being There. Alt-Country seemed to be a world of concisely crafted songs and then there was Wilco, deftly swerving between a three minute, fleeting, pop-y tunes and a jam band thrashings complete with punk sensibilities, effortlessly. This was even more apparent live. They took the canvas of some of the simple Tweedy tunes and turned them into a sonic Jackson Pollack before returning to their original form, unharmed.

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While experiencing Wilco in person more than lived up to the hype, I couldn’t help but feel that the overall experience was lacking. Verizon just seemed like the wrong place to see a band like Wilco and all I kept thinking was how nice it would be to lie back on a blanket, looking up at the stars and really let myself go wherever the music wanted to take me. Standing in a crowd, albeit an incredibly pro-Wilco gathering, was just a little too disjointing. I lost the verisimilitude in the jostling, rowdy mass. Yeah, I’ll admit it, I’m old.

[All photos of Wilco and Smith Westerns taken at Verizon Wireless Theater by Paul. More can be found on our Flickr account here and here.]

— Marc

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