Wilco brings traditional, experimental sounds to Brady Theater

On Sunday, Sept. 24, the Brady Theater was temporarily turned into a theater of immense sound, traversing both genre and sanity. The band was Wilco, supported first by Creamer, the opening act.
I’m not a fan of sitting at the concerts, even less-so in the balcony. I like to see the artists up close, it’s a part of the excitement, but sitting in the nosebleeds provided an acoustic experience that I’m sympathetic the people on the floor couldn’t hear.
The bands onstage were joined by wooden cutouts of a forest scene that leaned out in from both sides, and by a backdrop depicting rolling hills in a pastoral scene. I wasn’t sure at first if this was part of Wilco’s tour aesthetic or if this was a facet of the Brady, but some lighting effects later on in the night more-or-less confirmed the former. At times it would seem like a dark red sky in the background, or a sky of rolling clouds or a rising/setting sun. It was an extremely effective technique and fit the tunes oddly well.
The night started with Creamer, a Texas-based band that seems to vaguely occupy the same alt-country vein as Wilco. It does that without really experimenting as much as Wilco does, or without really slowing down as much. The band consisted of a guitarist, a vocalist/guitarist, a drummer, a bassist and a pianist.
The songs were, for the most part, easily described as twangy and soul-y. The drums stayed simple for the most part, though were occasionally utilized for some faster and more arresting beats. The bass stayed safe behind the rest of the instruments, and the vocalist, though with a wide range, was mostly un-inciteful, even when he was jumping and singing at higher and faster points.
I felt vague vibes of the country scene between the ‘70s and the ‘80s, feeling at points like I was listening to a stripped down and sped up version of the Eagles. The band clearly fits in and serves its purpose in a niche. The vocalist claimed Wilco as his favorite band, and Creamer works on the country aspect of Wilco in a way that an opener should. It’s safe music, though, and leaves the large experimentation to the headliner of the night.
When Wilco came on, they didn’t ham anything up. They didn’t dim the lights and wait an obscenely long time to take the stage, or have the rest of the band break into the first song and make the crowd wait for frontman Jeff Tweedy to run to the microphone and start singing. They just sauntered onto stage, picked up some instruments, and started playing “You Are My Face.”
The night’s setlist soared around Wilco’s discography, giving as good of a representation of all their albums as they could within two hours. The band’s most recent release, the whisper-quiet “Schmilco,” got a surprisingly thin amount of playtime, with the concert only featuring three tracks with amped up percussion: “If I Ever Was a Child,” “Cry All Day” and “Someone to Lose.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the band’s most popular album, had a short lead for the most representation of the night, with five songs performed from it.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the fourth song of the night and the first one from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” was far more instrumentally complex than the studio version. The venue’s back lights were timed with the bass strums that led into the song, and on a line that ended in “hello,” the lights all shined on the crowd and Tweedy removed his hat as if to greet the crowd, who all screamed “hello” back up at him.
Jeff Tweedy is of course the heart and soul of Wilco, the source of the lyrics and the composition, but the night belonged to lead guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. Throughout several of the tracks, such as “Art of Almost,” Nels would put his guitar down for a second and mess with a synthesizer of sorts that set next to him, creating sweeping and grating feedback loops that by all stretches of reason shouldn’t have fit the rest of the band’s smooth tunes, but somehow did.
Cline worked his experimental incantations flawlessly around Tweedy’s more traditional and practiced musical styles, and Kotche gave excellent backdrop for Cline’s improvisation. The end of “Art of Almost,” in particular, showcased Cline’s crazy effects. When the traditional, vocals-driven part of the song wound down, Kotche provided a simple cadence of snare bangs for a good minute or two, to which the venue’s lights were all synced, flashing on when the snare hit and then immediately off. Cline slowly built up one of the most distorted, droney and claustrophobic guitar-driven wall of noise that I’ve ever heard. It was completely astonishing that all this noise was coming from one man and a guitar with a feedback loop. As it built up and up, thrashing about the venue and bouncing off the walls, I felt something caught in my throat, holding my still and making it hard to breathe. It was one of the most physical reactions I’ve ever had to music.
The next few songs were mostly devoid of the drones and the experimentation. Cline and Kotche seemed to take a few songs to calm down, and Tweedy finally broke the silence on the ninth song, introducing it as a track “written by a guy from around here.” The song was “One by One,” which had lyrics written by Woody Guthrie but was never recorded or put to music until Billly Bragg and Wilco took a large collection of his unrecorded tracks and gave them music in the 1998 album “Mermaid Avenue.”
“Doesn’t get much more American than Woody Guthrie,” said Tweedy upon finishing the song. The crowd roared in response.
“He wouldn’t have been afraid to take a knee.” The crowd roared a bit louder, with equal part cheering and booing.
“He took a knee his whole life, and we’re all better off for it,” Tweedy concluded.
About this time the venue started to smell like marijuana. They played an unsuspecting rendition of “Something to Lose,” and Tweedy again addressed the crowd, but not before someone yelled for him to take a knee.
He didn’t seem to hear it. “Having a good time?” The crowd roared again in response, presumably meaning “yes.”
“Good, we’ll see if we can bum you out.”
If anything, though, it excited us more when they started playing “Pot Kettle Black,” another track from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” I greatly enjoyed hearing it live, but it was rather studio-true and that disappointed me a bit. There are a lot of moments in that track where I feel Cline could have really let his improvisation get the better of him, and that’s what I was hoping for.
Those hopes were answered in the next track, “Via Chicago,” an extremely quiet and melodic track. For the first half of the song, things were rather normal. The refrains were performed softly and with feeling. Once they got to the bridge, however, and every refrain thereafter, a jarring, obnoxious combination of screeching guitar and wild drums assaulted the crowd. As soon as the bridge/refrain ended, the song went on as normal, as if nothing absolutely insane had just occurred. The absurdity of the situation had me laughing out loud, and I now greatly prefer that to the studio version.
The fourteenth track, “Reservations,” was also from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and also represented a missed chance by Cline. The studio version clocks in at around seven-and-a-half minutes, with just the first two or three being a “true” song, and the rest of it being quiet and relaxing noise that ends the album. When the live rendition concluded the “true” part, I fully expected Cline to break out into a long improv sesh, but the band instead went next into “Impossible Germany,” which again satiated my Cline desires.
As the song wrapped up, Cline went into one of the longest guitar solos I’ve ever heard. It soared, it swept, it probably really hurt his fingers. It was insanely impressive, and his left leg kept lifting and kicking around behind him with the effort. The crowd gave the largest applause of the night when he was finished, and the rest of the band even joined in. Flustered, Cline clasped his hands together and bowed.
That adrenaline rush was followed by a slower track “When You Wake Up Feeling Old,” a song that’s apparently rarely played live.
“Someone gamed the song request on our website because that song never gets 33 requests,” Tweedy said at the end of the song, laughing. “We’re all in this together, don’t fucking forget that, please,” he went on, on an apparently different note. “I want everybody to succeed. Except Glenn [Kotche],” he said, pointing to the surprised man behind the drumset. The crowd laughed along as Tweedy explained how his Kotche’s attractiveness gave him an edge on life, and joked that people with such positive traits should have to wade past a few roadblocks.
The nineteenth track started off with some crowd interaction, with Tweedy remarking he’d seen a certain member in the crowd at the Woody Guthrie Center the day prior and had taken a picture with them. A track again from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” they started playing “Heavy Metal Drummer,” perhaps the most beat-driven song on the album. It was rather studio-true, though it ended with Tweedy erratically strumming his guitar and producing an extremely fuzzed effect, an effect that continued into the twentieth track as the band all stood up, even the drummer, and held their hands to the sky. On an unheard cue they all got back into position and started “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” a song, again, from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” The ending brought more delicious Cline noise, but the chorus itself, where Tweedy would normally yell “I’m the man who loves you,” was rather weak that night, and understandably so: it was the twentieth song after all. They played two more tracks and bid us goodnight.
Wilco wasn’t done, though. They gave us a very short wait, maybe one minute, and came back on for an encore. There, they played five tracks, the most significant of which was “Jesus, Etc.,” the night’s final track from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” It’s most universally recognized as Wilco’s most popular track, and Tweedy remarked that he hoped we could sing along better than Kansas City.
I think we did, because I sure sang along with every word.
They later played “Monday,” which featured the most aggressive vocal performance I’d ever heard from Tweedy, with him screaming “alright” into the mic over and over again on top of some Cline noise. This lasted for a good fifteen seconds until they transitioned seamlessly into “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and wrapped up the encore.
But they still weren’t done. They gave us a bit of a longer wait, but came back again to play two more tracks for a second encore. They were again Woody Guthrie tracks, “California Stars” and “Hoodoo Voodoo,” both from “Mermaid Avenue.” After that, the band bid us their last goodnight and the crowd shuffled out off the Brady, which now smelled unbelievably like urine.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker