Friday, May 18, 2007

Wilco (1995)

Wilco didn't start out as strongly as Son Volt, but obviously Jeff Tweedy has easily outshined Jay Farrar with his post-Tupelo success. He's certainly shown a greater ability to branch out from the alt-country idiom, and this has resulted in Wilco achieving not only commercial success, but also critical acclaim.

The first time I saw Wilco live was at a small rock club called Saratoga Winners, in the northern Albany suburb of Latham...or Cohoes, I'm not sure which. But, they're pretty much the same town anyway. The club was so named because of its proximity to the horse track in Saratoga Springs, the idea being that downstaters would stop off on their way back to the highway before leaving town. Len and I went to this show together and crashed that night at Scott's place, while he was out of town. Coincidentally, the second time I saw Wilco was at Avalon in Boston, with Scott, and we spent that night at Len's, while he was out of town.

The Wilco performance at Saratoga Winners was one of the most memorable shows of my life. Ever since the days of our early teens, Len and I were always fixated on the discussion regarding the best concert double bill we'd ever seen. It was pretty slim pickings back then that I think I considered Blue Oyster Cult and Uriah Heep to be on my list, because I kind of liked that Abominag album, which had the most hideously satanic album cover I've ever seen. In college, I saw a Rush and Blue Oyster Cult lineup in Philadelphia that would've easily been the best up to that point, if not for an abbreviated set of only 7-8 songs by BOC. I think it was one of those lame "special guest" situations.

The Saratoga Winners show was special because the opening act, the Scud Mountain Boys, would not only make this the double bill to beat all comers...though there have been a few competitors in recent years...but also it would lead to our discovery of one of my favorite songwriters ever. I'll get to that later. The other major factor that was always in play to take a good show to that next level was great playing enhanced by great showmanship. Tweedy was at his peak in that respect, and since his ego had yet to reach its apex, after performing an arena rock version of "Box Full of Letters", he allowed the band's roadie to come on stage for two great covers, "The Immigrant Song" and "Sweet Leaf". I recently came across an online setlist for this show that includes "I Wanna Be Sedated", which I now vaguely remember, but fails to list the other covers. I'm positive this is in error. Back me up on this one, Len.

But let's not forget the unsung hero in all of Wilco's success. In order to state my case, here are my personal ratings of their six studio albums:

A.M. (1995) B+
Being There (1996) A
Summerteeth (1999) A
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) A
A Ghost is Born (2004) C+
Sky Blue Sky (2007) C+

What's the common denominator here, you ask? Jay Bennett was Tweedy's right hand for Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I really don't want to go off on some Jeff Tweedy bashing tangent, except to say that he's the George Steinbrenner of indie music...I guess that makes John Stirratt the equivalent of Joe Torre...sort of. Weird comparison.

Anyway, as I said, I'm not going to spend a lot of time criticizing Jeff Tweedy, but I will recount one particular incident that demonstrates the relative coolness of Jay Bennett. A couple years later, Tweedy and Bennett toured as a duo, and Len and I caught their act at the Middle East upstairs. It was another great show and, once again, they were in the mood to perform a few covers. After a fine version of Big Star's "Thirteen", Tweedy was asking the audience for suggestions. He scoffed when I called out "Sweet Leaf", but Bennett satiated me by playing the opening guitar riff on his acoustic.

Yes, I've seen "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" in all its anti-Jay Bennett glory, but I still insist Bennett got a raw deal. More importantly, Tweedy lost a collaborator who seemed to have a better vision of the direction Wilco should have headed than the bandleader himself. That's just my opinion, of course, and probably Bennett's as well.

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