In the four times I’d seen Wilco prior to this month’s show at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, one song — Via Chicago, probably the most precise example of what the band is about — had escaped my set lists.
So I was quietly thrilled when Tweedy started strumming the chords on his acoustic towards the end of our most recent show. This is the Wilco song that explains it all.
If, as I generally do, you hear music before you hear lyrics, you hear a straightforward country song — a simple, sorrowful melody, punctuated by a soaring, aching pedal steel. But if you lock in on lyrics on your first listen — as Mrs. Crappy does — you understand right away that something is awry:
I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me
Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies
I sat and watched you bleed
And just when you start to feel comfortable with the dichotomy, the sweet country melody crumbles into a startling, uncomfortable sheet of noise, Tweedy singing about resting his head “on a pillow of stars” — while the universe dissolves into feedback.
That’s Wilco in a nutshell — stunningly beautiful songs, always just a moment away from turning towards darkness or descending into chaos. And that’s what we got a CMH. The show was billed as An Evening with Wilco, which meant we were in store for a special night — a three-hour show capped by an acoustic set stuck in the middle.
Even the transition from electric to acoustic was done in a typically odd Wilco fashion — as Poor Places, one of my favorite songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, crumbled into the biggest blast of feedback, the band’s crew invaded the stage, setting up chairs, lamps and instruments while we were swept up by the noise. When the feedback faded, the band was playing an acoustic Spiders — a familiar transition, sure, but getting a chance to hear the nuance in that song after it was stripped down was a real treat.
It’s not always an easy thing, listening to Wilco. They can be a happy, poppy band — Tweedy joked at one point that “we’ve always been pussies” — but the ease with which the band can move from a mostly gentle song like You Are My Face into the angles and edges of I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is challenging, breathtaking and exhilarating, all at once. We got to hear plenty of those turns that night, and my soul soared the whole time.
At another point in the show, Tweedy, who was extra engaging that night, said that “this might be the best show we’ve ever played. Maybe. Probably not, but still…” I don’t have any doubts, Jeff — it certainly was the best I’ve ever seen you guys play, and I hope we can do it again soon.
The band certainly did its part, but the other stuff about the night — the beautiful Carnegie Music Hall, the industrial-themed, black-and-gold poster for the show, and last but not least, the company — really made it perfect for me.
We shared pregame dinner and beer at Fuel and Fuddle with Chris, Nicole, Gwen, Derrick and our seatmates, Dawn and Dan, and then strolled over to the theater on that warm, spring night. Mrs. Crappy and I are accustomed to our own pre-show rituals and routines, but I wouldn’t change a thing about what we did before, during or after that show. Our friends, the meal, the music — and then stepping out into the night with smiles on our faces. There is nothing better.