Wilco is one of the best performing rock bands on the planet.
Last night’s show was phenomenal. Sold-out, 5,000 people under a cool, clear (finally!) August evening sky. Marymoor is an ideal outdoor venue—get there early and there’s little traffic; you can bring in blankets and picnic coolers and relax in the grass before the show. Even at capacity the place felt roomy, and I could’ve walked right up to the front row if I wanted to. Could’ve been louder, but I was told by a park staffer that was the band’s choice, not the venue’s.
Wilco took the stage and started off without a word, band leader Jeff Tweedy diving gently into the intimate “Sunken Treasure.” After a song from Wilco’s latest, Sky Blue Sky, they went into “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Whenever, wherever I hear it, that song kills me, and even in the photo pit, camera clicking away, I was stricken; it’s a painfully vulnerable, poetic ode to broken-down love, delivered with dramatic restraint. Nobody does true romance like Wilco.
Tweedy is an incisive, creative lyricist: From “Handshake Drugs” (“I was chewin’ gum for something to do”) to “A Shot in the Arm” (“The ashtray says we were up all night”) to “Jesus, Etc.” (“You were right about the stars: Each one is a setting sun”), he’s easy with simple, evocative imagery and the deeper themes it implies.
Every great rock band has its lead and it foil; in Wilco’s case, Nels Cline is the smoldering, outer-orbiting instrumentalist that counters Tweedy’s diamond-in-the-rough street corner troubadour. Throughout the night, Cline rocked some kind of 12-string electric, as well as a six-string and a lap steel. His chromatic solos on songs from Sky Blue Sky—“Side With the Seeds,” especially—were more eloquent here, more suited to the live setting than the record. He switches tones and moods unnoticed, until the crucial moment, when he suddenly falls in synch with the rest of the band. He carried “Impossible Germany” into bubbly, cozy ’70s rock territory, refreshed my appreciation for the jaunty, funky “Walken” from Sky Blue Sky, and blew “Via Chicago” into a space-shot frenzy.
That tune, delivered halfway through the set, was the theme song for the night, transplants in the crowd shouting out love for their home city as Tweedy strummed a solo acoustic guitar. Out of nowhere, the rest of the band came crashing in, seemingly playing a different song, metal to Tweedy’s velvet, and then fell silent again. Tweedy continued until the intrusion happened again, hilariously, before his quiet melody and the band’s erratic roar aligned into crescendo, making for one of the night’s most unexpectedly potent moments.
The audience was seemingly subdued, but as the night went on, it was clear that it wasn’t subdued but attentive, singing along at the appropriate moments, clapping on demand, cheering for solos and climaxes. The aforementioned “Jesus, Etc” has a wonderful chorus
Tall buildings shake
Singing sad, sad songs
Tuned to chords
Strummed down your cheeks
Turning your orbit around
that sounds especially sweet with 5,000 people singing it in unison.
Tweedy saved the banter til about halfway through the set. Once he started, he kept going. “George Bush is an asshole?” he asked, repeating something shouted at the stage. “The grass is green. You’re masters of the obvious.” Later, someone in the front row announced a recent marriage. “You got married this Sunday?” Tweedy said. “You got a long way to go.” Improvised or no, the band responded with “Hate It Here”
I try to stay busy
I do the dishes, I mow the lawn
I try to keep myself occupied
Even though I know you’re not coming home.
Notes towards the end of the show are spotty; the band finished abruptly before returning for a four-song encore. “What Light” is Tweedy in rare lyrical form, addressing the audience directly
If you feel like singing a song
And you want other people to sing along
Just sing what you feel
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong
rather than a potential lover or narrating in first person. That song was the only one weakened by the live setting, missing the rock-gospel grandeur of the album version. Tweedy introduced “a friend of ours, a local guy,” and Seattle avant guitarist Bill Frisell emerged like he might’ve just shut down his computer and walked over from Redmond to innocuously strum chords for a couple songs.
They played two from Mermaid Avenue, the folky “Airline to Heaven” with Frisell, and the lovely “California Stars,” after his departure. Tweedy dropped the guitar for a minute to belt out “Hummingbird”—another damaged, melancholy love song, Wilco’s forte—to end the encore.
By this time the sky had completely darkened and a tilted cresent moon hovered off to the side of the stage. The night air was fresh, free of this weekend’s humidity, and Wilco’s music breezed crisp and rich from the stage. Now was not the time to be leaving Marymoor park. The crowd’s only wish: another encore, and the band granted it. They came back on and cranked out a smashing version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” a tune that explosively defines the powerful, masterful band that Wilco is. Tweedy asked for an extened clapping session and the crowd obliged, keeping time as the band faded out, one by one. The clapping continued, a capella, until Wilco came back heavy mid-beat with the song’s guitar-grinding crescendo. It was a cooperative move that elevated the whole set, the whole setting, with an off-the-cuff giddiness, and a beautiful way to end the night.
They didn’t play everything I wanted to hear (no “Heavy Metal Drummer,” no “Kamera”) but I was glad—I’ll see those songs next time. Wilco is a band I look forward to growing old with.