Sometimes it’s the most oddball of stylistic combinations that make for the best music. And so it goes with the band Wilco. Wilco’s music doesn’t fit neatly into a single category; it’s made up of a mix of genres not commonly found together. The band’s repertoire forms a rich tapestry that pulls its threads from across the musical loom. The band’s leader, Jeff Tweedy, grew up in Illinois, where as a teenager he played in a punk band influenced by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Tweedy also enjoyed country music, and eventually he and bandmate Jay Farrar formed a country/punk group Uncle Tupelo. If you listen to Uncle Tupelo songs, you’ll hear a clear country sound and instrumentation, but you also get the energy and edge of punk rock.
Eventually Tweedy and Farrar split up. Farrar went on to found Son Volt, while Tweedy launched Wilco. Wilco and Son Volt share these alternative neo-country roots, as well as a freewheeling and rambunctious style that owes something to punk. But while the punk influences are certainly there, Wilco’s primary style is country. In “California Stars,” the band offered three-part country harmonies, accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo. Similarly, “Jesus, Etc.” featured a fiddle, which is also a staple of country sound. Many of Wilco’s songs center on Tweedy’s earthy voice, which can be a bit scratchy, but in a pleasing way that contributes to the raw emotion of the music.
For instance, in the song “Hummingbird,” Tweedy imparts a yearning, melancholy vocal that perfectly complements the lyrics: “So he slept on a Mountain. In a sleeping bag underneath the stars he would lie awake and count them/And the gray fountain spray of the great milky way would never let him die alone.”It’s almost bluesy. Wilco takes country in unexpected directions, with jam band style grooves, improvisation and an experimental feel. In the song “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” Tweedy offered eerie guitar riffs as the band veered into a extended hypnotic vamp.
Nels Cline is the lead guitarist. His early background includes jazz and fusion. He was also heavily inspired by Jimmy Hendrix and has played with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. I think perhaps he is responsible for some of the Moore-influenced “noise” and experimental moments in Wilco’s sound, and he incorporates effects like feedback and dissonance. At any moment, Wilco might kick up from a quiet country tune into a crazed Sonic Youth-style jam.My sense was that Cline isn’t interested in being a flamboyant lead guitarist, but the band makes room for him to cut loose at times with jazz-inspired solos.
At times the band felt somewhat scripted, but when they did improvise they went in cool directions, recalling for me a range of different groups, from REM and the Beatles, to Pink Floyd and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Wilco has a knack for capturing a mood. For example, “Company in My Back” has a haunting and dreamy quality as Wilco alternates between major and minor chords.
Glenn Kotche is Wilco’s drummer, and he keeps a tight beat with a sharp and percussive sound. Sometimes drummers can get carried away and add too much texture to the music, but Kotche gets a big beat while keeping his playing spare.
The whole show had a cool vibe. The bands’s performance was enhanced by a light show that blended captivating background imagery in time with the music, creating a cool ambience and elevating the overall experience.
The Mann is an inspiring place to experience live music. It’s an outdoor amphitheater that seats 14,000, and on a beautiful summer night it’s magic. The venue includes a gathering of picnic tables arrayed around several food trucks, allowing for some fun people watching.
The crowd reflected the diversity of the music. I saw t-shirts featuring Motorhead, The Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Beastie Boys — an eclectic assortment of musical tastes.
Overall, it was a great experience. I hadn’t known that much about Wilco, and having read through their origins and Tweedy’s history the music makes much more sense to me now. I’m definitely going to go see them again next time they’re in town!
— By David Foulke, Philadelphia, PA