Wilco’s Reborn Sound Bridges Generations

Jeff Tweedy and the current incarnation of his influential alt-country group bring together indie hipsters and baby boomers

Alexa J. Bush

In the history of the most successful rock-and-roll bands, there comes a point when critical and popular recognition meet head on, and the winding path of ascension begins. As they rise, that path begins to branch out, and some evolve into underground sensations while others morph into undisputed superstars. The trick that Wilco has pulled off over the past few years has been to keep one foot in the grimy dirt and the other on the gold-paved road. Since 1994, the band has been combining their Nashville roots, laden with lap steels and banjos, with a more experimental exploration of the boundaries of rock, and their star still shines bright for both the clan of purists who collect their every bootleg and the thousands of Rolling Stone readers who just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

The signature alt-country band of their generation hit Boston last weekend bearing all of their ambiguous fame. Their show the previous night easily filled the 3,600-plus seats at the Wang Theatre, but it’s easy to imagine the homegrown Wilco felt more comfortable here in a packed gym at Brandeis University’s Shapiro Student Center. The venue even evokes Wilco’s humble beginnings, with bleak bare walls and not a chair in sight.

“It’s good to have you all here—standing up and sweating with us,” lead singer Jeff Tweedy said, gazing over the sold-out crowd, before diving into a heart-rending performance of “Wishful Thinking.” The gym’s acoustics were clearly not designed for a nuanced musical performance and left much to desire, but neither the newly initiated fans nor the old diehards seemed to notice, as they swayed and danced ecstatically in the sweltering heat.

If Johnny Cash is the father of country-fried rock-and-roll, Jeff Tweedy is his bastard son. The music of both artists inspires a mystical allure and hardcore following that tags them as true pioneers. Emerging from his distinctly twangy Uncle Tupelo past, Wilco’s frontman still carries something distinctly country in his weathered face and immortal voice.

Over the past ten years, each album that Tweedy has helped write and produce for Wilco has borne a new sound. From 1996’s pop-drenched Being There to the sleepy front-porch rock of 1999’s Summerteeth, Wilco has expanded their musical diversity, culminating in their masterwork, 2002’s noise-driven Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which launched their recent brush with mainstream popularity.

Now they’re touring in support of another evolutionary album. On this year’s A Ghost Is Born, Wilco flaunts their range of abilities. While some songs, such as “Wishful Thinking,” resurrect a gentle acoustic aesthetic, others, like “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” expose new layers of Wilco’s now larger instrumental base, showing off the talents of the band’s newest member, electronic specialist Mikael Jorgensen. Both songs comprised the heart of Wilco’s main set, which stuck mainly to the new album but managed to dip back for some older classics.

Standing humbly on a tattered oriental carpet before a digital montage of photos and animations, the six-man ensemble pulsated like a system of viscerally emotive organs supported by a strong electronic backbone. As flashes of bumblebees in broken honeycombs and doves tracing a barren horizon swirled behind them, the music took shape in an ethereal fashion. Each song flowed seamlessly out of the last, with distortion filling the musical pauses to lend the concert a cohesive expression.

While the band’s highly orchestrated visual and auditory concoction would impress any young hipster, their versatility managed to astonish everyone. The audience, filled with Gen-Nexters and baby-boomers alike, hollered their approval for the entirety of Wilco’s two-and-a-half hour set.

In an impressive show of unwavering dedication, each demographic in the crowd could sing along to almost every lyric. It was truly inspiring to watch Wilco so gracefully unify generations of rock-and-roll listeners. The new fans’ heads nodded with approval at every pulse from Pat Sansone’s keyboard in the largely electronic-based “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Later, early loyalists’ eyes lit up when Nels Cline dusted off his classic lap steel for a couple of standards in the first of two encores.

In the end, every sound Wilco produced captivated the crowd. The audience’s energy, so localized and organic, was not unlike what one might expect from the cult following of an underground rock band. That energy no doubt fed into Wilco’s inspiring stage presence.

The two dozen songs that Wilco let loose upon the masses came across as something more substantive than simple music. They were confessions of the nation’s history. Over the past decade, Wilco has managed to stake a claim in America’s cultural landscape, and the lyrics of “War on War” and “Handshake Drugs” invoke the fears and failings of a generation.

It’s a wonderful thing to see a band growing up in small clubs go on to selling out one of Boston’s most prestigious venues one night and a college gym the next. But Wilco is still holding onto their humility.

“They had these velveteen seats at the [Wang] last night,” Tweedy said at one point. “And so I was like, ‘Hey man, I’ve got a jacket made of that stuff.’”

Wilco are not afraid to fill a sizeable theatre. They’re also not too proud to return to the small venues that they have long inhabited. They have seen the two directions their band can head, so different in the lifestyles and values that they flaunt, and they have chosen both.

“We sold out twice in Boston—it must be because we’re so popular,” Jeff Tweedy said towards the end of the set, the sarcasm dripping off his scraggly beard. With one last smirk, he managed to capture the enigmatic essence of Wilco.

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