Wilco Take Trusting Queen City Fans On Experimental Pop Roller Coaster

Band delivers set full of pretty notes, flubbed lines, squalling guitars.

CINCINNATI — You know you’ve got them hooked when, in between the pop songs, the crowd cheers for radio static and seemingly incidental feedback. Clearly, they want the whole package: chiming bells, spooky lyrics, pretty
notes, flubbed lines, honking keyboards, ambient noise, sentimental moments
and squalling guitars.

In his all-American uniform of a jean jacket and faded blue jeans, Wilco
leader Jeff Tweedy was more than happy to indulge his Queen City audience, in
between a few quips about what he thinks makes their world-famous chili so
dangerous. Playing to a packed house at Bogart’s, Wilco performed 10 of the
11 tracks from their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album during a
two-hour set in which experimentation was applauded as fervently as pop

Taking the stage to the strains of the eerie “Pure Imagination,” the “Willy
Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” soundtrack song that plays over the end credits to the
soon-to-be-released documentary on the band (see “Wilco Documentary Captures Band’s Crash, Burn, Return” ), Tweedy and Wilco set the tone
for the night with the lead Yankee track “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
With a deep blue spotlight illuminating just Tweedy’s face, Wilco reproduced
the song’s off-kilter rhythms, down to the tinny, abstract piano lines. But
it was the fire alarm-like sound of bells ringing near the song’s end that
got some of the loudest applause of the night.

It were as if the audience was letting the band know from the very start: We
trust you and we’ll follow where you choose to lead us. With the band’s newest member,
keyboardist Leroy Bach, taking over for departed member Jay Bennett, many of
the band’s songs had a slightly earthier, jazzier feel than in the past.

Bach’s effect was felt by the third song of the set, when he added a warm
organ tone to the poppy “Kamera,” while his minor-key, classical-sounding
piano runs transformed “Shot in the Arm” into a driving, nuanced rocker. The
latter ended with Tweedy rocking back and forth and shaking his head while
repeatedly reciting the song’s mantra, “What you once were isn’t what you
want to be anymore” as drummer Glenn Kotche pounded out his trademark spooky,
booming rhythms behind him.

Tweedy flubbed the lyrics to the folky ballad “She’s a Jar,” telling the
audience it was the first time in 400 shows that he’d forgotten the words to
the Summer Teeth song. The disheveled, hoarse-voiced troubadour was
forgiven soon enough as the band turned the mid-tempo “Ashes of American
Flags” inside out, veering from a Burt Bacharach-like pop arrangement to an
all-out abstract ambient noise piece in the span of just three minutes.

There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with knowing you were right, and
while Tweedy wasn’t exactly gloating about Wilco’s success following their
previous label’s rejection of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, he couldn’t help
but mention how things had somehow worked out for the best.

“Did any of you guys buy our record?” he asked the crowd, which freaked out on
cue. “Did any of you guys borrow our record?” he asked mischievously,
alluding to the widespread pre-release bootlegging and the band’s decision to
offer the album online months before its release. “Did any of you do both?”
which, of course, got the biggest applause.

“Thank you,” Tweedy said, a hint of shy gratitude in his voice.

Tweedy then tried to explain a few Wilco-isms to the crowd that he hoped
might catch on: “snoozin’ ” and “drowsy,” both of which mean something is
really rockin’.

The next song, of course, was seriously drowsy. “I’m the Man Who Loves You”
started out somewhat countryish. But it quickly made a right turn into
Beatles-esque “Get Back” territory with its string of “ooh”s and “ahh”s,
finally crashing to a close with a fiery, jagged solo the always
self-deprecating frontman called “the worst” of his career. “No, I’ve had
much worse,” he quickly corrected himself.

The highlight of the evening came near the first set’s close, with a nearly
eight-minute version of the Being There track “Sunken Treasure.” With
just faint drums and subtle, ominous keyboards, the song crept up like a
creaky sea shanty until Tweedy began wheezing into his harmonica like Bob
Dylan on cough syrup. The group fell into a drony lock groove that repeated
for nearly three minutes, segueing into “Not for the Seasons,” which had the
opposite feel with its loose, jamming vibe, culminating in a frenzied, Sonic
Youth-like barrage of guitar squall and freestyle noise.

The members of show openers Preston School of Industry (featuring former
Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg) joined in on percussion for a folky encore
run through the Mermaid Avenue staple “California Stars,” which
featured an extended cowbell solo. With its every artistic turn applauded,
the band pulled out one last trick during the second encore set: a new song
that blended quirky Devo-style new wave with Replacements-like punk.

The atonal, herky-jerky unreleased song “I’m a Wheel” featured a frantic
chorus of “I’m a wheel/ I will,” followed by a classically twisted Tweedy
lyric, “I’m gonna drown you,” which sounded more desperate than violent.

Judging by the audience’s response to Wilco’s experimental pop roller
coaster, they’d be likely to follow Tweedy into whatever murky waters he
wants to lead them to.

Wilco’s set list:

  • I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
  • War on War
  • Kamera
  • Radio Cure
  • A Shot in the Arm
  • She’s a Jar
  • Ashes of American Flags
  • Pot Kettle Black
  • Jesus, Etc.
  • Heavy Metal Drummer
  • I’m the Man Who Loves You
  • Sunken Treasure
  • Not for the Seasons
  • Reservations

    Encore #1

  • California Stars
  • I’m Always in Love
  • Misunderstood
  • Far, Far Away

    Encore #2

  • I’m a Wheel
  • Red-Eyed and Blue
  • I Got You (At the End of the Century)
  • Outtasite (Outta Mind)

For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.

Servin' it hot and fresh since '99.