The mechanical shrieks that demarcate the end of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” seemed so oddly comforting and familiar in concert that I wondered how much of the uniqueness of the band’s recent work has to do with the domestication of odd noise.
Blips, ray guns, chimey things, disembodied British voices: they are the sine qua non of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), a great album that would be merely good without all the perfectly-placed buzzes, wails and whatever it is that’s happening on the last two minutes of “Reservations” (besides the listener weeping like a child). With 20-20 hindsight, you can see evidence of such a future development on Being There (1996), an energetic marriage of roots and feedback-laden psychedelia, but most of us weren’t looking. I sure wasn’t.
Anyway, Wilco sounded plenty domesticated themselves during their Friday, June 13 appearance at Minneapolis’s Walker Arts Center—as if the forward-looking country-rock band that recorded Being There were doing covers of the experimental pop combo that recorded Yankee. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy sounded positively buoyant—not at all the mordant, adenoidal fellow so many of us grew to love on Wilco’s last two albums.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist LeRoy Bach, and a guest fiddler pounded the crap out of their instruments under a clear June sky next to a sculpture garden. Only a nut would complain, and a sold-out crowd of around 8,000 people certainly weren’t. Material consisted mainly of the louder portions of Being There and Yankee—“Outtasite (Out of Mind),” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “Kamera” (Tweedy had to sing the latter an octave higher than on the album to make it project)—along with a generous portion of new material. The new stuff is (at least on stage) powerfully rockist and satisfyingly complex—not as layered as YHF, though who knows what its album incarnation will sound like.
But I’m an intellectual, and I don’t know how to just have a good time. That’s why I was so excited by openers The Bad Plus, a jazz trio who’ve been getting mad amounts of press here in the Twin Cities because of their string-breaking tempos and their habit of covering folks like Blondie (“Heart of Glass”), Nirvana (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and Aphex Twin (“Flim”). Pianist Ethan Iverson sounds like some kind of amphetamine-fueled monster with Hydra-hands, and drummer David King won my permanent admiration during the group’s Aphex Twin cover by actually imitating—with mere fleshly wrists—the blrp-blrp blrrrrrrrp of an IDM drum machine. Talk about intelligent dance music.
Critics tend to have a fetish for the group’s covers—witness the above paragraph—because it makes writing about the group easier, and also because its covers rule; you wouldn’t believe how Iverson emotionally complicates the effect of Blondie’s New Wave/disco classic “Heart of Glass” by adding just a few notes to the main chords. (Similarly, if there is a critical backlash against the Bad Plus, I imagine it takes the form of “Why these gimmicky jazz versions of Aphex Twin in the first place?” To which the answer is, obviously: Because when the Bad Plus do it, it sounds cool.) But originals like “1972 Bronze Medalist” can freewheel for minutes while losing neither listenability nor impressiveness. The Bad Plus thus made a great opener for Wilco—two bands for whom “experimentation” is not synonymous with “ugly.” I look forward to hearing more from both in the future.