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big city blinking.

There are plenty of reasons why Pittsburgh is a cool town in the summertime, not the least of which is the ridiculous amount of really good free music. Allegheny County Parks hosts free shows at two parks every Friday and Sunday, and the Three Rivers Arts Festival hosts an unbelievable lineup for the duration of the two-week show.

Which brings me to the Wilco show I saw last night at the Point. I discovered Uncle Tupelo late, after the band was done, and I immediately aligned myself with the Jay Farrar camp — I found Son Volt to be closer to whatever Ideal I had in mind. I don’t regret that; the first two Son Volt records are classics and the third has a ton of just staggering moments … Even Farrar’s solo records, though more challenging, include plenty of stuff to dig into.

After discovering Uncle Tupelo, I also bought copies of Wilco’s AM and Being There. Cool records both, but I found Wilco — and Jeff Tweedy — to be a little bit too pop for my tastes. I never heard more than a song or two from Summerteeth, and while I loved the Mermaid Avenue records, I didn’t think they were especially representative of what Wilco was about.

Even after reading everything about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I didn’t bother to pick up a copy until about a week ago, to prepare for this show. That’s when I first had an inkling: I could have been horribly wrong about this.

And then last night, Tweedy might just as well have kicked me in the head when Wilco came on stage: “Pay attention. We’re going to take everything you think you know, run it through a lap steel and a fuzztone guitar and leave you crying like a baby.”

And he would have been right.

The pop sensibilities are still there. After hearing a couple of the tunes from the upcoming A Ghost is Born, the wife turned to me and asked if I was hearing the Beatles as well. Yep. Bouncy piano, nicely layered, two guitar thickness … these could be Sgt. Pepper outtakes.

But that’s just a tiny portion of the repertoire. Ten songs from Ghost, and most share, at least on stage, the sound of YHF: Distortion, the aforementioned fuzztone, feedback that reminds me of the Sonic Youth show I saw at the Point a year ago and big hairy monster riffs that seem to propel each tune to a life of its own. The hooks are still there, but they’re not easy to find sometimes.

That makes the reward that much sweeter.

Since last night, I’ve been stuck on the song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” from YHF. On the record, the buildup is cleaner, fading in, alarm clocks ala Dark Side of the Moon, looking for the melody and then finding it, suddenly, as Tweedy starts to sing… Live, it starts to build in the same way, but it keeps building, past the subtlety of the studio version … huge noise, without sacrificing beauty, concerned parents looking around. It came up in the setlist right after “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the poppiest song on YHF, and provided a nice counterpoint to the closest thing to a singalong all night.

Here’s a setlist; thanks to the folks posting at ViaChicago, the band’s online community page:

Company in my Back/Hummingbird/Ashes of American Flags/Heavy Metal Drummer/I Am Trying to Break Your Heart/War on War/I’m Always in Love/Shot in the Arm/Hell is Chrome/Theologians/At Least That’s What You Said/Muzzle of Bees/Poor Places/I’m the Man Who Loves You/The Late Greats

encore one: When the Roses Bloom Again/One by One/Sunken Treasure/Handshake Drugs/California Stars

encore two: Spiders (kidsmoke)/I’m a Wheel

Wilco’s a great band. They’re even better live (and a live album would bear this out…). As soon as I’m done with this, I’ll be sending an email to Jay, a taper who said he’d get me copies when he got the chance. Not-very-patiently waiting, for those, and for Ghost, which is released two weeks from tomorrow.

Anyone know to get that ringing fuzztone out of your head?