BY JEFF LEVEN
Back in 1994, the now-legendary alternative country pioneer band Uncle Tupelo was suffering an intense schizophrenia. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, the two primary singer-songwriters, struggled to sustain an increasingly fractured and turbulent musical marriage, but to no avail. Two captains, one boat, time to quit. So Farrar recruited a new band and called it Son Volt while Tweedy took most of the rest of Tupelo and formed Wilco. And, naturally, critics were quick to compare them. Son Volt, it was deemed, was the “serious” outfit — austere, dark and poetically powered by Farrar’s stark American Musical Gothic vision. Wilco, meanwhile, was the “fun” band — more bubble-gum, but they rocked a little harder, had more of a sense of humor and were considerably more entertaining live.
A lot has happened since 1994. For their part, Son Volt produced a string of accomplished but nearly identical albums in the same old alternative country vein and then faded away, leaving Jay Farrar to release his first solo album last month. And, I hate to say it, but they never stopped being damn boring live. Wilco, meanwhile, has evolved at light-speed as the chirpy twang-pop of their first album A.M. gave way to the two-disc opus Being There, which found Wilco acquiring ace multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who assisted them in pulling in pieces of the Stones, Nirvana, Leonard Cohen and swirling it all into a heady brew of brilliant but also accessible music. On the heels of this masterpiece came yet another embarrassment of riches. On the Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II albums, the band collaborated with English songwriter Billy Bragg (among others) to record original music to accompany a treasure trove of newly discovered Woody Guthrie lyrics — an unusual and exciting exercise in musical historiography. Meanwhile, on their own merits, the band recorded the astounding Summerteeth, which added hints of the Beatles, Beach Boys, ELO and the odd electronic squawk to their arsenal of tonalities, and necessitated the acquisition of multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach to get another set of fingers on keys and strings. And perhaps the most beautiful thing about it all is that, even as they began to take themselves more seriously and even as their artistry grew more complex, it was all still easy and satisfying to listen to.
The question, of course, is how well the carefully crafted songs of Wilco’s increasingly dense albums translate live. By and large, it is fair to say that one of Wilco’s primary strengths has always been their ability to rework their songs in a live setting — changing tempos, adding and subtracting orchestration, developing alternate versions — the type of stuff that makes a concert worth going to, not just a mere recitation of the album.
But, to be honest, the tone has changed. Early on, Wilco capitalized on pure energy. I remember first seeing them in ’96 as they put on one of the most entertaining shows I’ve ever been to — lots of loud guitar, a little stage-diving, lots of crowd participation, some cool covers and even a food-fight with the front few rows. A year later, the mood had calmed a little as the Woody Guthrie songs demanded perhaps a more reserved atmosphere — an unshaven Tweedy banged out songs on an acoustic guitar while the rest of the band remained cheerful but calm. Two years after that on the Summerteeth tour, the ambiance had further chilled. Things were slower, hazier, more navel-gazing. And, sure, they rocked out on the encore, but the stomping feet gave way to closed eyes and swaying.
And so we reach the present. Since Summerteeth, Wilco has recorded an album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but left their label. As a result, the album (which this tour was designed to support) has yet to be officially released, but instead has been posted on their website. Meanwhile, the group traded drummer (and Tupelo alum) Ken Coomer for Glen Kotche and flat out lost Jay Bennett. And so they show up in Boston with something of a new line-up, some new tunes and a question in my mind as to what to expect.
The good news is that Wilco remains immensely talented. The four songs they debuted the other night from Yankee Hotel show that their musical growth continues unabated — “Reservations” ranks with any of the ballads they’ve ever recorded, while “Ashes of an American Flag” was particularly poignant given the past month.
The bad news is that Wilco has become an increasingly joyless entity. The loss of Jay Bennett has crippled many of their better live songs, as Bach struggles to fill the void with plasticy organ parts on songs like “I’m Always in Love.” Everything just seems stuck in mid-tempo. Everything. Jeff Tweedy’s once-engaging stage banter has been replaced by the silence of a zombie in a stoner sweater, scratching out admittedly clever parts as if by rote. The audience spent most of the night in dead silence, only to demand three encores just to get the band to meekly rock out on “Outtasite (Outtamind)” and “Monday” — songs that used to bring down the house. The entire time, I found myself sitting there wondering why I was so amazingly bored with such obviously accomplished and intelligent music. And then I realized that I’m starting to suffer the fate of the faithful fan watching the eventual aging and demise of a favorite group. While it’s hard to point to anything particularly wrong with Tweedy’s songs or Wilco’s direction, in some ways the thrill just seems to be gone.
It breaks my heart to say this, but seven years later, their performance in Boston suggests that Wilco has become the “serious” band. You have to find your fun elsewhere.