Wilco: New York, NY, September 22, 2011
Rumsey Playground, Central Park
New York, NY
September 22, 2011
Nels Cline can conjure wind. He did so mid-way through the third song of Wilco's performance in New York City on September 22. There were several thousand witnesses.
Cline, Wilco's guitarist-cum-audio mad scientist, was at the crest of an intense solo passage in "Ashes of American Flags" when a strong, crisp breeze blew in from the East, lifting the blanket of early evening humidity that was laid over the crowd gathered in Central Park's Rumsey Playground. Wilco is a live band of such extraordinary powers that a supernatural act of meteorological manipulation seems well within their grasp. Cline's was greeted with an appreciative roar from the devoted crowd.
In 2000, when Wilco was still playing clubs behind their then-current record, Summerteeth, the band's sound was an easy-to-digest gumbo of all that came before: the ramshackle power pop song writing of Big Star; the psychedelic country of the Byrds; the arena rock of mid-period Who. Those strains are still evident, but in the intervening decade-plus they have been joined by hints of Sonic Youth, Kraftwerk and other electronic noise elements. Incredibly, Wilco has never veered too far into experimental territory. They've pushed the boundaries of pop, but there are no throwaway records. Perhaps using the model of The Beatles, Wilco leader and songsmith Jeff Tweedy has managed to keep Wilco about the songs, using technology and noise as spicy embellishments, not the main dish. The result is a book of songs equally at home channeled through a seven-piece electric band as through an acoustic guitar on Tweedy's not- infrequent solo jaunts.
The Wilco lineup that performed at this show is the most stable incarnation of the band in its Seventeen-year history. They authoritatively handle all parts of the catalogue: the rave-up rockers like "Monday," the techno-avant-psychedelia of "Art of Almost" and, most effectively, those songs where the two strands thread together, tracks like "Shot in the Arm" and "Handshake Drugs." This band can careen from tender and sensitive to bombastic and "out" on the turn of a dime.
Nearly one-third of the show's set consisted of songs from The Whole Love, the album the band is touring behind. The number of new songs alone stands out but incredibly, some of the most enthusiastic shouts were during the opening bars of these newer numbers. Instead of heading to the beer and bathroom lines, fans were ready to sing along. The Whole Love was not due in stores for almost a week after this show and herein lies one of the secrets of Wilco's success: like a great jazz artist or more adventurous and fan-friendly rock band, Wilco has always demonstrated great respect for its fans, understanding what the idea of Wilco means to its fans. The group does not pander, but has managed to create a dynamic with its audience where each exploration, every creative twist and turn, is greeted with interest and enthusiasm, not jadedness or skepticism.
How has Wilco done this? Certainly by having a hip awareness to the power of social media, dating back well before that term existed. Since 2001's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band has offered full streams of their latest records well before street date. This is not even standard marketing practice in the music business today, but Wilco trusted its audience to be appreciative as well as to grow with each cycle as more people hear the band's music from the 21st century's real cultural influencers: friends and other fans.
In addition, Wilco seems to keep its operation at an intentionally human scale. In many markets, certainly on the coasts, they could be playing arenas. Instead you will more often than not find Wilco playing large theatres, growing for the longterm and allowing new fans along the way to experience the band in the same fashion as the veterans. Interestingly, there is very little of the "I remember them back when" sentiment that plagues other independent-minded groups when they reach larger audiences. Like the band, Wilco's fans seem as concerned with where this group can go as to where it has been.
To that end, early in the encore break, Tweedy noted that the band played New York City's Town Hall ten years earlier (September 27 & 28, 2001). In the days after 9/11, the lyrics behind two of the then-newer songs, "War On War" and "Jesus, Etc." took on added poignancy ("Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad sad songs/Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks/Bitter melodies turning your orbit around"). Wilco has subsequently included these songs in most every New York City performance. Always contrasting the melancholy with the optimistic, Tweedy reminded the crowd in Central Park that "We're still here, you're still here and there's still a lot of work to be done." Everyone, band and crowd, seemed ready for it.