This year is Wilco's twentieth anniversary, but the posit of Wilco merely being a band for two decades is a somewhat reductive statement – across their career, they've covered as much musical ground (and employed as many personnel) as three or four bands. They started out as alt-country lifers trying to keep at the forefront of the movement before taking a sharp left turn to become one of the most interesting experimental rock bands of the turn of the century, bar none. Although that lineup's creative output established Wilco as something much bigger than just Jeff Tweedy's post-Uncle Tupelo project, the group publicly fractured and came back in yet another form: a powerhouse live sextet whose performances made them one of the top live bands in the world. That lineup is still intact, and as Tweedy, his longtime lieutenant bassist John Stirrat, percussionist Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, and guitarist Nels Cline took the stage on a cool August night, Wilco were celebrating their longevity not by looking back, but by entering their twentieth year as a band beginning yet another fascinating chapter.
While Wilco weren't on a victory lap last Tuesday at Marymoor Park, Jenny Lewis sure as hell was, and a completely deserved one at that. Lewis is winding down touring behind The Voyager, the album that best encapsulates Lewis's ebulliant musical voice with an equally as radiant stage show that plays to all of her strengths. Lewis played a set nearly identical to the one she put on at Sasquatch a few months prior, but with a band so tight and a catalog so strong (not to mention their sweet rainbow duds), Lewis couldn't have failed. She's just got too many knockout tracks at her disposal on this tour: "Head Underwater", "Girl on Girl", "Silver Lining", "The Moneymaker". (Not to mention the new "Girl on Girl", which hints that Lewis will continue in the sharp, hook-filled lane she's in right now rather than the acoustic and classic rock leanings of her prior solo albums.) The album cycle behind The Voyager is nearly done, and when it's finished, it will have underscored that after a long recording hiatus and a victorious comeback of an album, Jenny Lewis is as golden as she's ever been.
To fully grasp where Wilco are in 2015, you've got to go back to 2004. Tweedy had just finished A Ghost Is Born, his third (very good, if not great) studio-heavy release in a row, as Wilco were having yet another lineup change, with multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach being replaced by Cline and Sansone. Before that tour could get into full swing, Tweedy checked into rehab, delaying Ghost's release and the rest of the tour. But after the band returned to the road, Wilco's live reputation was gradually upgraded from "pretty good" to "buy tickets already, damn it". A large part of that revelation was due to – and still is – due to Nels Cline, the band's not-even-close-to-secret weapon. With one foot firmly footed in tasteful textural playing and the other planted hard in the Jimi Hendrix School of Face-Melting Solos, Cline plays a subtle role on stage until he doesn't. And when he doesn't, you know it, because he's snarling while he burns his way up and down the fretboard at the very edge of stage right. (Tweedy may lead all the singalongs during a Wilco show but Cline gets all the wild, borderline manic applause. It's not even close.) It's telling that Star Wars, Wilco's surprise-released ninth album, is their best received in a decade and also the one that frequently sounds like a effortlessly gnarled Cline riff. As our own Gerrit Feenstra notes, Star Wars is a "wonderfully playful and assertive burst of rock magic", not least because it captures the arty punk energy that has run in Wilco's music and moves it from the background, where it's been for nearly twenty years, and places it front and center.
This is all to say that as the opening 45 minutes of Wilco's set, the entirety of Star Wars worked pretty well. It's possibly Wilco's most immediate album, so even for those in the audience who didn't know the album that well – it hadn't even been out a month at that point – the album's energy (especially "Random Name Generator", "King of You", and "More") carried the opening segment of the show. But with the new material depleted after less than an hour, Wilco were left to play only old songs, which as everyone knows, is the best kind of set. (That's not to say a band's new material is inherently worse or less appreciated by an audience, but it's pretty much a universal truth that people go to shows predominantly to hear the songs they know and love.) For two hours, Wilco played a set that played more or less like a Best Of Wilco mixtape, except with an obvious bias towards the band's favorite albums, guest appearances (Jenny Lewis, Ben Gibbard, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Frisell), a show-closing acoustic set, and of course, plenty of guitar solos. If Wilco were trying to be crowdpleasing with their setlist, they weren't being shy about it: over half the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, easily the band's most loved album, were aired out. Conversely, they cherry picked the 2005-2014 era for just three of its best songs ("Impossible Germany", "Art Of Almost", and "Born Alone"). The rapturous reaction to the tracks from A Ghost Is Born seemed to validate the album's recent reevaluation as a Wilco classic (as opposed to the divided reception it got in '04), and because they're ethically (and probably contractually) obligated to pull out at least half an hour of their '90s catalog, they chose some of their best: the underrated "Box Full of Letters", and the properly-rated-as-greats "Forget the Flowers", "Misunderstood", "Sunken Treasure", and "California Stars". The final acoustic segment of the night was a welcome surprise, showing that the band can still excel without Cline and Tweedy's showmanship, and even the obsessive diehards (shout out to the two guys who traveled from Brazil for the show screaming in the front row) got a treat when the band pulled out the relatively-recently revived "It's Just That Simple", sung by bassist John Stirrat. As far as showing Wilco's depth as a live band and the diversity and consistency of their catalog, there probably isn't a better set out there. (And if there is, please send me the Roadcase link.) And perhaps because it's somewhat of an afterthought after the release of Star Wars (or maybe because he was having so much fun onstage that he forgot about it), Tweedy didn't mention that it was the band's twentieth anniversary until two hours into the show. That's because it didn't feel like a nostalgia trip, victory lap, or any other laurel-resting event. Yes, Wilco is 20 years old. (Please don't insert a "you know what"-rock joke here.) But they're still great, so who cares?
Ten years removed from its release, there's a strong argument to be made the 2005 live album, Kicking Television, is the essential post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco release. It's not because it preceded the performance-leaning (rather than the studio-based albums that came before) albums that would dominate Wilco's second decade, but because it's still the only release that comes close to capturing Wilco's adventurous, curious spirit in one spot. The fact that Wilco even has a Best Of album is kinda weird, because you can't effectively encapsulate their story in 80 or 120 minutes. Try and make a Wilco mix and you'll find yourself in one of two situations: it's either all of Summerteeth and Yankee and a few other tracks or it's not enough of Summerteeth or Yankee or Ghost and a wildly disparate mix of other tracks. But that's what makes Wilco so great: they just can't be reduced to CliffsNotes, the whole book has to be read. If Wilco were trying to tell their twenty-year story in 180 minutes at Marymoor, they failed. To be fair, they came close, but they still failed. But what an amazing, fascinating failure it was.
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