During Wilco’s wildly wonderful concert at the Arlington Theatre on Friday night, frontman Jeff Tweedy told the crowd that the band was up for a Grammy Award on Sunday night for their 2011 album, The Whole Love; this would add to their two previous wins for 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. However, since their category (Best Rock Album) wouldn’t be televised, he would do his acceptance speech right then and there.
To wit, “at top of the list” Tweedy thanked “the best crew in the world,” saying he “would bring them out, but they’re working.” He then led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to their road manager, Jason Tobias, ending with, “That’s our Grammy acceptance speech.”
As it turned out, Wilco did not win the Grammy — it instead went to the Foo Fighters. But Wilco’s new album continues their unbroken string of great ones dating back to the band’s 1995 debut, A.M., recorded after the dissolution of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo.
Only Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt have been in the band this whole time. On the last few albums and at the concert, they were joined by avant-guitar hero Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen.
Their new album was well-represented at the concert, with the highlight being “Art of Almost” and its super-cool looped guitar solo and guitar freakout at the end by Cline. While most bands would be resting on their laurels by this stage in their lifetime, Wilco continues to push the boundaries.
Other nice new ones included “I Might,” “Dawned on Me,” “Standing O,” “Born Alone” with a descending-chord ending a la “I Am the Walrus,” and “Capitol City” as requested by the band White Denim, who opened the evening with a short but sweet set that was a bit dreamy, a bit proggy, a bit jammy and a bit hard rocking.
The concert also drew heavily from Wilco’s 2002 breakthrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which famously was rejected by their record label, but they then released the album for free online, then had it released by another label (ironically a different subsidiary of their old label), and for which they ultimately garnered huge critical and popular praise.
The show started with the last song off this album, the slow and pretty “Reservations,” which Tweedy later described as “a somber number,” noting that it mostly kept people in their seats, although that was quickly remedied. Also from this album was the brilliant lead-off track “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which features some of Tweedy’s least straightforward lyrics — it starts with “I am an American aquarium drinker,” which I take to mean that he drinks a lot of alcohol, but I’m happy to hear other theories — and a noisy bit at the end nicely executed at the concert.
Other songs provided a nice overview of Wilco’s stylistic diversity, such as the country song “She’s a Jar” with Tweedy playing gentle harmonica, “Impossible Germany” with lovely Southern rock-worthy harmonized guitars by Tweedy and Sansone plus some serious jamming by Cline, “California Stars” with lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Wilco, and the rocker “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”
A personal favorite was “Box Full of Letters,” the only track off Wilco’s underrated first album. Although I like extreme sonic experimentation as much — and actually probably much more — than the next guy, there is an undeniable charm to Wilco’s early, pure sound. It would’ve been great to also hear “Passenger Side,” “Must Be High” and many others off this album, or many songs off their other albums for that matter. It is a testament to the quality of the Wilco songbook that even after a two-hour show, there are so many more that I would’ve loved to hear.
Grammy or not, Wilco is certainly making some of the most exciting music today, whether in the studio or onstage. With their most stable lineup ever, it’ll be interesting to hear what they come up with next.
Art of Almost
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
She’s a Jar
One By One
Box Full of Letters
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Dawned on Me
A Shot in the Arm
Hate It Here
Red-eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.