Wednesday, September 21st, 2011
Art Of Almost
Wilco and Nick Lowe at Massey Hall in Toronto
Frank YangBands are always compared to other bands. For new acts, it can be helpful for targeting a sympathetic audience but can also be a hinderance, providing an excuse to be ignored should someone not care for some arbitrary reference point. And should they be so fortunate to endure long enough to define their own identity, a new risk arises – being compared to yourself. That comes in a few flavours – there’s “it sounds like all their other stuff” or “it doesn’t sound as good as their older stuff”, and I’d go so far as to say the former is the more damning as it comes with the distinct whiff of indifference.
This, arguably, is the territory that Wilco have been treading towards over their last couple records. Both Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) were perfectly fine albums but were more pretty and pleasant than exciting – I argued their merits with those who dismissed the band as “dad-rock” but didn’t explicitly disagree with them. And to be fair, Jeff Tweedy’s had a long career that’s covered a lot of bases and volume levels, and if his muse just wants to sit back and strum the guitar then that’s his prerogative. But one of the downsides of being a successful band, I suppose, is the fact that instead of being able to just bang out a record to document where your head’s at and move on, you have to spend a couple of years touring it around the world before you can try something else.
Trying something new isn’t quite accurate with respect to their new record The Whole Love, out next Tuesday but streaming now at NPR, but that its closest reference point in their catalog is Summerteeth should be enough to get the attention of anyone who’d assumed they were set on cruise control down the middle of the road. It’s certainly their most sonically interesting record in some time, and not in the found-sound Jim O’Rourke sense, as well as containing some of their most pop and experimental efforts in a while. With only a handful of listens from advance streams it’s clearly too early to say where it will eventually settle in the hierarchy of Wilco discography greatness, but it certainly has a good start right out of the blocks.
The band also got a head start on their touring cycle, hitting the road over a week before the new album was released and settling into their now-customary two-night stand at Massey Hall in Toronto last weekend for the second stop of the tour. It’d been almost two years since the last visit but Jeff Tweedy stopped by for a couple solo nights back in March so fans had at least had a fix of hearing their favourite songs live recently, not that that stopped them from packing the theatre again, and twice.
And early. Wilco has toured with a number of acts over the years, both established and not, but I’d never seen so many people in their seats for the opener before… but they’ve never had an opener as legendary as Nick Lowe. Performing solo and acoustic in support of his just-released new album The Old Magic, the former power-pop architect turned professor of sophisticated pop had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as he charmed with both his banter and songs. His newer material showed his talent for turning a memorable phrase and melody hasn’t dimmed a bit with age, in fact his wit may be even more incisive now with the benefit of wisdom of his years to back it up. But even so, it was his classic material that everyone wanted to hear and he graciously obliged, offering up a run of hits from “All Men Are Liars” and its still somehow timely Rick Astley dig through the irresistible “Cruel To Be Kind” and then an unexpected and gorgeous cover of Elvis Costello’s “Alison”, sounding more poignant with Lowe’s middle-aged vocals than Costello has maybe ever managed. From that highlight he ended even stronger with “When I Write The Book” and finally a plaintive “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” that had the audience on their feet, allowing him to depart with a standing ovation, each and every clap deserved.
Being on hand for the first three songs of Friday night (photos are from the first show but writeup from the second), I got to witness the mind-bending greatness of their opening with The Whole Love‘s lead track “Art Of Almost”. It’s a song that, had it set the template for the entire album, might well have forced a complete redefinition of what Wilco are about. Whereas in recent records they seemed content to let Nels Cline’s guitar leads contribute any and all weirdness to their songs, “Almost” finds all six members pushing boundaries in different directions, simultaneously and reminding me of early ’00s Radiohead – remember when Wilco were “America’s Radiohead”? – in the best way. Even from the very first listen, it’s a stunning declaration of what Wilco can do, and live it’s exponentially heavier than on album. It’s a hell of a thing. And for Saturday night, we had to wait until song two.
Reports from Friday night were that the band had to cut The Whole Love‘s closing song, the meditative “One Sunday Morning”, on account of curfew restrictions and so it seems they simply decided to roll it over to open the following night’s set. And it’s a beautiful song – one of the album’s highlights even though it dwells at the completely opposite end of the world of music from “Almost”, but certainly doesn’t pack the same visceral impact. But as said, that only had to wait until song two and then it was off to the races. Past Wilco setlists have been relatively predictable things; always entertainingly performed but I have to admit that recently, the notion of maybe not needing to see them every time through town had entered my mind. Perhaps anticipating this, they served up an unexpected set list that in addition to the new material, leaned more to the turn of the century material – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth – than any in recent memory with Sky Blue Sky only contributed one song, albeit a jaw-dropping even by Nels’ standards “Impossible Germany”, and Wilco (The Album) was ignored completely.
But it was the first encore that really truly sealed this as one of the great Toronto Wilco shows; opening up with a epically crashing “Misunderstood” – anyone count the “NOTHINGS!”? – and followed with a “Jesus Etc” that Tweedy allowed the audience to sing most of and then a “California Stars” that everyone sang along to. And then. THEN. A one-two Being There punch of “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” which basically laid me out flat. This lineup, those songs, holy shit. It wasn’t quite the songbook romp that they pulled out the second night opening for Neil Young back in 2008, but that show was also without – and thanks to – Glenn Kotche (their rotation of substitute drummers got to pick the set list for that show). The one-song, second encore of “I’m A Wheel” was almost pointless – there was no topping what had just happened – but at least Pat Sansone got to do his windmills.
In the fifteen or sixteen times I’ve seen them, over all the different lineups, Wilco have never been anything less than consummate professionals on stage. But there was definitely an extra bit of something in this show, even beyond the song selection, that seemed special. The band were extra energized and invigorated – whether because it was early on in the tour or the excitement of playing new material, I don’t know – but if you thought that the band’s best days were behind them or they were getting too settled in, do yourself a favour and see them on this tour and stay at least as long as “Art Of Almost”. Then tell me they’re done.
The Toronto Sun and National Post were on hand for Friday night’s show while Buffalo News, Spin and NOW were also on hand for Saturday’s show. The Wall Street Journal has an interview with Jeff Tweedy, Drowned In Sound with Mikael Jorgensen and The Los Angeles Times with Pat Sansone while Spinner has a chat and NPR a World Cafe session with Nick Lowe. And Wilcoworld has a talk with Bob Ludwig, the mastering engineer who worked on The Whole Love.
Photos: Wilco @ Massey Hall – September 16, 2011
MP3: Wilco – “What Light”
Video: Wilco – “Born Alone”
Video: Wilco – “I Love My Label”
Video: Wilco – “What Light”
Video: Wilco – “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”
Video: Wilco – “Box Full Of Letters”
Video: Wilco – “I Must Be High”
Video: Nick Lowe – “All Men Are Liars”
Video: Nick Lowe – “I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock And Roll)”
Video: Nick Lowe – “Half A Boy And Half A Man”
Video: Nick Lowe – “Cruel To Be Kind”
Video: Nick Lowe – “Crackin’ Up”
Stream: Wilco / The Whole Love
Mojo reports that the classic Guided By Voices lineup has found time to record a new album amidst the past year of touring and will release Let’s Go Eat The Factory on January 1 (which is a Sunday?). Good thing Bob had some songs lying around!
Just this weekend, some friends and I were wondering what the usually prolific Magnolia Electric Co were up to; Secretly Canadian has the answer, and it’s not a great one – if you’re a fan of Jason Molina and his work, do help him out with a donation.
Video: Girls – “Honey Bunny”
Video: Mates Of State – “Palomino”
Video: EMA – “Marked”