What’s more punk rock than playing midtempo, country-tinged songs in a stadium? Depends on how seriously you take Jeff Tweedy’s quip from the stage at Wilco’s show in New Haven, Conn., which he punctuated with a bristling but self-aware, “That’s punk rock, bitch!
Tweedy had every right to be defensive. Sure, Wilco was delving into songs from Cruel Country, its most Americana album in, well, forever. And sure, Tweedy and Co. were serenading folks on a turf-covered field at a converted tennis center in the shadow of Yale University. But how many of their peers are getting into the muck of our national malaise, digging deep into the sadness of it all, with such heart and determination? I can name a few. You can name a few. That’s still too few.
More than a third of Wilco’s 22-song set was drawn from Cruel Country, with instant standouts “I Am My Mother,” “Hints” and the title track threaded alongside staples like “Handshake Drugs,” “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “War On War” at the top of the show and “Falling Apart (Right Now)” in a plum spot for the encore. For fans with more of a jam-band jones, “Bird Without A Tail”/“Base Of My Skull” provided an extended ramble down a parallel path.
Despite the wealth of solid new material available on the double album, Wilco has been playing it safe on this tour, with reliable selections that could almost be dismissed as too predictable: “Via Chicago,” “Impossible Germany,” “Box Full Of Letters,” “California Stars,” “Jesus, Etc.” Except that when they sound this fantastic, who could complain?
There was only one true surprise, but what a great surprise it was: “Kicking Television,” played for the first time in eight years. The short, pointed number channeled Tweedy’s bristly birthright into sonic fireworks just under the wire to make curfew. (Last time Wilco played it, at The Riviera in Chicago on my husband’s 36th birthday, we were there, too.)
When Tweedy, Nels Cline and Pat Sansone weave their guitar lines into beautifully intuitive patterns, something magical happens. It’s not that it makes our country any less stupid and cruel, or our planet any less doomed, but this earthy music makes it all feel a bit more bearable for a while.
Singing in the choir and finding your people in a repurposed tennis stadium can be plenty punk rock—don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
Adding to the special nature of the night, Built To Spill played for a full hour before Wilco took the stage—and though I’ve often appreciated Doug Martsch and his shifting combo over the years, this was the first time I’ve actually been awed by their live performance.
Joined by Melanie Radford on bass and Teresa Esguerra on drums, Martsch was all in for intense renditions of classics like “I Would Hurt A Fly” and “Virginia Reel Around The Fountain,” as well as Richard Hell’s “Time,” building up to the mighty “Goin’ Against Your Mind” and “Carry The Zero.” Built To Spill played like the band had something to prove, and it succeeded on every level.
—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich