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Wilco Celebrates the Twentieth Anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot


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Wilco has been touring celebrating the 20th anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF); their fourth album is often heralded as their masterpiece. The album has an interesting backstory recounted in the documentary I am Trying to Break Your Heart named after the opening song on the album. I caught the final performance of a five-night stand (April 20, 2022) at the United Palace theatre in Northern Manhattan. Several personnel changes marked the early years of the band. However, this version of the band has been together since 2004. Jeff Tweedy has been Wilco's leader since its inception in 1994. He is also the primary composer and vocalist. Bassist, John Stirratt is a co-founder. Drummer and percussionist, Glenn Kotche joined the band during the recording of YHF. Keyboardists Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone joined shortly thereafter. Nels Cline whose exceptional work as free jazz and experimental music guitarist predated Wilco and continues to this date, joined Wilco in 2004. The six musicians were augmented by a three-piece horn section and the Aizuri Quartet, an avant-garde string ensemble that opened the concert.

Wilco joined the Quartet on stage after they completed their short set. In the first part of the concert, they performed all 11 songs in order from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot without any interruptions or banter. It's a magnificent album, and it was played to near perfection with close fidelity to the studio album. The album consists of a collection of beautifully realized melodic folk-rock tunes with added layers of sonic complexity and unusual arrangements. Shards of dissonance and distortion punctuate the songs, which adds an element of surprise both on the album and when performed live. All Wilco musicians play multiple instruments, and the band can offer the broad sonic palette needed to recreate this complex music. The horns and strings expanded the band's sonic capabilities, adding coloration without significantly altering most YHF tunes. The two exceptions were "Jesus, Etc.," which included a gorgeous string introduction, and "I'm the Man Who Loves You," which liberally featured the horn section giving the song a swinging R&B feel. The YHF songs tend to the somber and reflective with oblique lyrics. They can be deeply moving even if the lyrical narrative is incomprehensible. The opening song, "I am Trying to Break Your Heart" conveys something of the emotional journey of relationships despite the seemingly inane lyrics (I don't believe in touchdowns). "The Ashes of American Flags" is a poignant song that expresses as a series of images and is open to any number of interpretations. It juxtaposes a beautiful melody with choreographed chaos, providing Cline a vehicle to explore the sonic capabilities of his extensive noisemaking toolkit. On the other hand, "Heavy Metal Drummer" is a joyful slice of pop nostalgia that literally recounts Tweedy's experiences attending concerts in his teen years. It is always a crowd favorite and one of the set's highlights.

The final song, "Reservations," is a plaintive romantic ballad and a fitting end to the first half. The first set lasted just under 55 minutes, roughly equivalent to the run length of the album. The second set began just a couple of minutes after the band left the stage. It opened with a cover of (British singer-songwriter) Bill Fey's composition, "Be Not So Fearful," a lovely ballad that featured great string work by the Aizuri Quartet. Overall, the set was much looser and even more fun than the first. Jeff Tweedy mentioned that the songs were intended to continue in the vein of YHF and dedicated the remaining songs to the late Jay Bennett, who was a member of the band in their early years. Bennett co-wrote 8 of 11 songs on YHF and several others on the early Wilco albums. He was dismissed from the band after the recording of YHF. "The Pieholden Suite" is a somewhat Beatlesque deep track on Summerteeth. "Cars Can't Escape," "A Magazine called Sunset," and "The Good Part" are all rare tracks released on EPs or rarities collections. The show ended with a raucous version of "Monday," which segued into an equally rocking "Outtasight (Outta Mind)." This was a fitting ending to a joyous celebration of the band's crowning achievement.
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