The way Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy kept bringing up the heat at the band’s performance at Salt River Fields, you’d think the Deadheads who had descended upon their hometown of Chicago the same night had banished the group to perform outdoors in the sweltering summer heat of Arizona as punishment for musical crimes against the City of Big Shoulders.
“I’m not complaining, but please can we have this in January next time?” Tweedy asked in the middle of the set as he smiled underneath his long hair and cowboy hat. “We’re available all year long.”
The Windy City’s loss was Scottsdale’s gain. It’s more than fair to compare The Grateful Dead to Wilco. Both bands have their roots in folk and built their reputations on strong live performances that have garnered them dedicated legions of fans. While Soldier Field had a huge crowd of hippies celebrating a revised Grateful Dead whose music is firmly a half a century in the past, Scottsdale was jamming along in the present and gladly waved their cheap cardboard fans to stay cool enough to do so.
It’s bold to make the claim that a band celebrating a 20-year milestone can still be considered modern. It was the one-two punch of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” the opener from the classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, along with “Art of Almost,” the epic experimental rock tune that started their latest album of new material The Whole Love, that asserts that declaration. The songs were joined together by a mountain of feedback that sent the crowd into a frenzy, and climaxed with the swift hands of guitarist Nels Cline, whose ability to make the most beautiful noise would make a punk band green with envy.
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The remainder of the set were selections from the best of the band’s catalog with nearly every one of their albums represented, complete with arrangements that rarely matched their studio counterparts. It seemed while Chi-town was paying tribute to Jerry Garcia, Wilco played “Hummingbird” and “Kamera” with a heavy touch that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Neil Young and Crazy Horse album. The drums and guitar squeals that are the highlights of the Summerteeth’s “Via Chicago” were played with gusto by the band as their leader continued to sing the melancholy lyrics and play his guitar with the straightest of faces as a light show normally reserved for a heavy metal show went on behind him.
The crowd opened up their bodies and moved themselves to dance as the band went into the fan favorite “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Their movement, combined with Tweedy’s whistling at the end of “I Got You (At The End Of The Century),” seemed to will a strong breeze into existence that cooled the audience. Tweedy acknowledged the change in temperature by quipping, “That should show that you should complain more often.” It certainly seemed to aid in the dexterity Nels Cline demonstrated during his extended guitar solo during “Impossible Germany.” It would’ve made Bob Weir’s mouth drop open a little.
Wilco has a reputation of being gracious to their opening bands, and this performance was no exception. After acknowledging their history and admiration for Dr. Dog, they brought them out for a rendition of “California Stars” that resembled a scene from The Band’s concert film The Last Waltz. Dr. Dog’s confident performance earlier that day, with beautiful harmonies and groovy guitar rhythms that are more suited to an easy Sunday morning than a crazy Friday night, was a fine example of why they are becoming a festival staple.
Wilco closed with “The Late Greats,” a song about how the greatest music can’t be heard on the radio. “Enjoy the fireworks, patriots,” Tweedy told the crowd as he left the stage, only to be followed by the radio hits of the last few years to accompany the pyrotechnics. It felt anti-climatic to hear Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry when a band like Wilco gave a performance so great that you thought of all the songs they didn’t have a chance to play and still weren’t disappointed.
The flower children will still miss Jerry, but Wilco fared thee well.
Last Weekend: Wilco with Dr. Dog and Banana Gun at Salt River Fields
The Crowd: A lot of dudes and a lot of polo shirts
Random Notebook Dump: “Both bands seemed to channel Neil Young, Tweedy with his hat and Dr. Dog with their voice. Wilco, with their references to Arizona and the great Southwest, has always seemed to have one foot in the mountains and the other in Chicago.”
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Overheard in the Crowd: “Nels Cline is one of the greatest guitars of all time!” — a father talking to his daughters after every solo the guitarist performed. It’s hard to disagree with him, but the shame is when those girls become teenagers and rebel, it’s doubtful they’ll share their father’s point of view.
Personal Bias: This is my third time I’ve seen Wilco. While they’ve never disappointed me, this was my favorite performance.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
Too Far Apart
Secret of the Sea
Heavy Metal Drummer
I'm the Man Who Loves You
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Box Full of Letters
Dawned on Me
A Shot in the Arm
California Stars w/ Dr. Dog
The Late Greats