I won’t mince my words: Wilco are one of the most accomplished live acts that you can ever hope to catch on stage. They have an amazing song-craftsmanship and a sometimes thrilling musical ability. Grasping elements of the Band, the Dead, Neil Young, Radiohead and Kraftwerk (!) they manage to make a sound that is both amazingly creative and individual, yet at the same time alludes to the great live acts littered throughout the history of rock and roll. They create music which is beautiful, moving, sad, happy, touching and distant all at the same time. They are unlike any other band around.
Here in the UK, they are by no means a mainstream act, yet the concert is full of adoring fans, hanging on to every syllable uttered from Jeff Tweedy’s mouth, or marvelling at the cacophony of noise coming from the six musicians on stage, or in silenced wonder at the more moving and touching moments. A Wilco concert is an emotional roller-coaster and today’s Shepherds Bush Empire set is no different.
The band are back in England to promote their new record, Sky Blue Sky. As an added bonus to fans who had purchased the CD, it was streamed live over the internet. As such it was the first official public live showcase of their new material. I for one was curious as to how these new songs would translate to the live arena. I had mixed feelings about the new material tonight, much of it was pretty faithful to their recorded counterparts – experimentation will come with time. ‘Side with Seeds’, ‘Sky Blue Sky’, and ‘What Light’ were the most faithful along with ‘You Are My Face’. The difference as far as ‘You Are My Face’ is concerned is in the sheer beauty of the song. Already by the second song I had shivers running down my spine at the wondrous imagery of this song which, clouded in poetic metaphor, meant everything but nothing at the same time. ‘Impossible Germany’ and ‘Walken’ from the new album allowed Wilco to strut their musical stuff. ‘Impossible Germany’ saw an impossible three-guitar jam. ‘Walken’ moved between party tune and ragged bar-room romp.
However, the biggest cheers were reserved for their older material. Third song in, and ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ has lost none of its raw emotion or power. The track, from the band’s most critically acclaimed album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was greeted as an old friend by the crowd. The band rocked things up further with ‘Shot in the Arm’, the rolling and repetitive piano building up the song to a rocky crescendo. Jeff Tweedy has a knack of writing songs which can touch the inner-depths of a soul which has been badly bruised and beaten after a broken relationship. In many respects this was cathartic in the most beautiful way. Pure melancholic rocked-out musical bliss.
‘At Least That’s What You Said’ showcased the band’s ability to create music which defies categorisation. What is this song? Rock? Prog-Rock? Country Rock? A little bit of all three? Tweedy whispers the vocals into the microphone, the Empire is eerily silent as the tension in the vocals is built up until the only release possible is through stomping guitars. A cheer spreads through the crowd, and then comes two minutes plus of clashing guitars, rocky riffs, pounding drums and loud and dirty piano and furious headbanging from the crowd.
Their first encore best encapsulates where Wilco currently are with their music. ‘Late Greats’ and ‘War on War’ are beautifully poppy songs where their gift for musical embellishment shines through. ‘Poor Places’ starts off as a slow folk song, with only a hint of weirdness from the band, before the song descends into white noise and feedback, before too long ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ starts up and the noise is replaced by a monotonous beat.
‘Spiders…’ bore the brunt of much of the criticism of Wilco’s new direction on their Grammy award winning album, A Ghost is Born. The song tonight seemed to go on for ever but it was never dull. The song is basically a musical crescendo with lots of guitar twiddling in between. Oh! but what guitar twiddling! It seemed as if Wilco knew the exact moment to unleash the killer guitar riffs which allowed all the tension that had been built up through the twiddling to be released. This was the modern day equivalent of seeing a Grateful Dead jam (albeit a very, very dark one) and I and many others were completely in awe. By the end of the song they even managed to trick the crowd into thinking the song ended with a whimper and not a bang, as the crowd clapped along with the music becoming softer and softer. Again, masters of timing, the band waited until a few people cheered the end of the song before unleashing one more round of clashing guitars. This was quite simply amazing stuff from America’s best live band.
The surprise of the night was when Jeff Tweedy introduced a special guest to the stage. Bill Fay is the songwriter behind, ‘Be Not So Fearful’, a song which Wilco often play live. He is one of the forgotten popstars of the 60s who released a few records which failed to make the mark. He then largely disappeared from the limelight and his songs by and large were forgotten. The crowd was completely silent for this one. An amazing and beautifully fitting end to surely one of the best concerts that Shepherds Bush has witnessed over the last few years. What myself and probably many in the crowd didn’t know was this was Bill Fay’s first on-stage performance in over 30 years. Wilco are so talented that they can seemingly bring back performers from the dead!
There is no doubt in my mind that this was possibly the best musical performance that I have ever witnessed in my life. Wilco are completely original while maintaining a link to a musical heritage and past. The play with passion and power, creating a musical tapestry which is sonically detailed, yet still retains the best bits of musical simplicity. In Jeff Tweedy they have one of the most original and talented modern songwriters. The only downside to the night was that I wanted to relive it all over again. Writing this review has merely reawakened many of the feelings that I felt that night. Whenever they decide to return to the UK, I know that it will not be soon enough. If you’re a fan of musicians who do their talking through song, if you’re a fan of innovation, if you’re a fan of musical beauty then Wilco should be the band for you. I cannot recommend a ticket to their live show more strongly.
1. ‘Side with Seeds’
2. ‘You Are My Face’
3. ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’
4. ‘Handshake Drugs’
5. ‘Shot in the Arm’
6. ‘Impossible Germany’
7. ‘Sky Blue Sky’
8. ‘At Least That’s What You Said’
9. ‘Shake it Off’
10.’ Muzzle of Bees’
12. ‘Via Chicago’
13. ‘Jesus, etc.’
15. ‘I’m the Man Who Loves You’
16. ‘Late Greats’
17. ‘War on War’
18. ‘Poor Places’
20. ‘What Light’
21. ‘Airline to Heaven’
22. ‘Be Not So Fearful’ (w/ Bill Fay)