I've never liked concerts where the performers sound exactly like they do on their studio recordings. Live performaces need spice and spontaneity. I want to see and hear a band take risks, explore some new territory, and challenge me as a listener. Otherwise, I'd rather stay home.
For this reason I was looking forward to jamming my way through Wilco’s first of five sold out shows in their beloved Windy City. It was a highly publicized homecoming for Chicago’s favorite Dad Rock band. Mural-sized posters on city busses. Ads on NPR. Official countdowns on local radio programs. But the show itself, while musically and technically accomplished, was, well…boring.
So boring, in fact, that the young woman sitting next to me fell asleep during nearly every song, only to wake up during the applause. A sharp contrast to the energy of the Kanye & Jay-Z show I recently wrote about. Perhaps the snoozer was only feeling the soporific spirit of Chicago Lyric Opera House (a pretty fucking cool venue for a rock show), or maybe she pounded too many PBRs before the show. Most likely, each Wilco tune lulled her to sleep.
Which was surprising given the "jam band" aesthestic Wilco's embraced since their 2004 release, A Ghost Is Born, with guitarist Nels Cline now leading the band into cacophonous maelstroms. But over the past few years these diversions have become perfectly scripted, well-timed (and well-rehearsed) events during their live shows. I wish the band would again explore those exotic spaces outside the riffs and solos we already know.
As James commented in his recent review of the Wilco boys’ latest effort, The Whole Love, the album tends toward “symphonic soft-rock.” Nothing spectacular, offensive, or terribly original. Which is fine for dinner parties and Volkswagen commercials, but pretty lethargic stuff for a live show. Especially when they kick things off with a 12-minute performance of the hushed and insanely repetitive “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).” Which also has to be one of the clumsier song titles of the year. “Oh shit,” I tell my friend. “This is gonna be a long night.” A night, in hindsight, I should've stayed home.
What the show really lacked was a true spirit of spontaneity—guitar solos that spiralled and splintered, challenging the band and audience to keep pace and anticipate what might come next. Instead, the audience was taken on a well-planned musical field trip, capably (and soberly) chaperoned by Tweedy & Co. (nobody’s ever accused them of being shoddy musicians). Sometimes the best field trips are the ones where the chaperones get drunk, the driver gets disoriented, and the bus goes careening down a dirt road towards some unknown end.
Photo: Hidden Track