All photos: Kara Capelli
Dozens of tiny ghosts dangled over the stage at Wolftrap. On strings, lit from the outside and the inside, the cottony hoods transformed from ghosts into stars into xylophone keys into warm lamps, depending on Wilco’s need.
Transformations also occurred for many of Wilco’s tracks at their Wolftrap performance on Tuesday night, refreshing many well-worn songs for the live show. To start the night, Wilco began bright and clear and ordinary, playing the half-love-song “Dawned on Me” from their 2011 album “The Whole Love.” Jeff Tweedy even kept the whistlin’ interlude. That felt safe and familiar as did the next track, “War On War.” However, I did notice on “War” that Nels Cline’s traditional rock/jam-solo style guitar work made all the difference in the live show, his solos and riffs creating a spontaneous feel that added to the Wilco-deconstructed effect. On “Ashes of American Flags,” many of the carefully crafted solos and small parts were played over or thrown out the metaphorical window in favor of, for example, added xylophone melodies or improvised guitar parts. I observed this too later in the show, on the intro to “Heavy Metal Drummer;” that perfect piano/guitar/backwards sounding drum part played, but was dominated in volume by more live guitar parts. These small changes weren’t to any song’s detriment; the new and exceptionally beautiful “One Sunday Morning,” for instance, already has much audible white space built into it, and live, when parts were played up, emphasized and improvised, the main guitar hook sounded like an unsung chorus line making it that much more powerful.
Seven songs in (after “The Art of Almost”) Tweedy said hello to the audience. “How ya doin’?” There was the necessary remark on how great it was to be at Wolftrap, and how beautiful it was there, then he asked us an anxious, almost motherly question: “Is everything all right?” Cheers in the affirmative (that must have meant, “Yes Jeff Tweedy we are all right”) prompted the band to dive into “Handshake drugs,” which has a lyric containing the mostly unmentioned subtext of Wilco, “exactly what do you want me to be?” On “Impossible Germany,” Cline delivered some of the most impressive (i.e. shreddingest) guitar work of the evening. The song already made use of a lengthy guitar part, but there was so much intense soloing during concert I wondered for a second how Cline’s fingers weren’t falling apart. “Nels Cline, everybody,” Tweedy announced, gesturing, “There was a guy in Lee Ranaldo’s band that looked just like you- not as good though.” (This guy was Cline, of course.)
Then, as always with Wilco, there came something different. Jamming on the upbeat “Too Far Apart” and “I’m Always in Love,” the crowd cheered, energized. Wilco brought them back down with “Via Chicago.” Tweedy, starting up the disturbing / beautiful lyrics, “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt all right to me,” strummed an acoustic guitar slowly with added assistance of slow slide guitar from Cline and light drums from Glenn Kotche. The “Summerteeth” version does have some purposeful out-of-time drumming and guitar work that’s not quite in tune, but their performance at Wolftrap made much more of this. Picture the band bathed in calm blue light, Tweedy strumming slow and softly singing the opening lines of “Via Chicago.” That’s nice right? Then picture A NEW HOLE RIPPED IN THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE: palm muted electric guitar railed in complete chaos with erratic drumming, as loud as possible, lights blinking on and off at a near-strobing rate for ten or fifteen or infinity seconds, while Tweedy strummed and sang as calmly as ever. This happened three heart-stopping times. It was terrifying, nightmarish, and exactly how they wanted it to be. “Everyone’s doing ok still, right?” Tweedy asked after, to cheers and laughs. You tricky Wilco, you.
The show rolled on. Feeling particularly energetic at the start of “I’m the Man Who Loves you,” Kotche stood on his stool, arms fully outstretched and with a spotlight behind him that changed him into a silhouette. He dropped down to a seated postition and drummed once the song kicked off in earnest. “Ending” the show with the dramatic “A Shot in the Arm” from everyone’s favorite “Summerteeth,” the crowd and band went nuts, special Going-Nuts Award given to keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen whose head banging nearly put his face into his instrument.
The encore, dedicated to Woody Guthrie (whose birthday would have been three days before the show), included two of Guthrie’s lyric sets put to music, the incredible “California Stars” and the goofier “Hoodoo Voodoo,” with “The Late Greats” sandwiched in between. Full setlist and interactive pie chart mapping album diversity during Tuesday’s show is available here.
I had the good fortune to see former Sonic Youth members Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley play for a second time this year. They took the stage before Wilco, accompanied by Wilco’s guitarist Nels Cline. Ranaldo mentioned Cline had recorded some tracks with him but this was the first time they were playing live together. Shelley’s drumming and Ranaldo’s guitar work were as sharp as ever. Cline added much to Ranaldo’s original compositions as well. Cline’s guitar stood out, rather than knitting together with the other instruments, and gave an extra shine to the music when the songs had a tendency to wander. I was glad to see Ranaldo was more warmed up to the crowd this time than he was in May. He again told the story behind “Xtina,” talked about Occupy before “Shouts” and said the “schizophrenic” song “Fire Island” was inspired by New Yorkers who “are crazy about trying to relax and do work at the same time,” taking their work with them to the beach. Ranaldo’s voice was as youthfully Ranaldo as ever (he could be in his twenties or thirties by the sound of him). I was again impressed by the darker, more mysterious guitar lines of Ranaldo’s solo work (as in “Xtina as I Knew Her” and “Fire Island”). Each musician concentrated on their parts, which fine-tuned the band’s songs to their state of barbed beauty.
- Lee Ronaldo