Playing outdoors at Coney Island’s Keyspan Park, Wilco’s past lurked just behind the grandstand.
One block from the stadium lay the street where Woody Guthrie lived and scrawled lyrics eventually sung on Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue. The album became Wilco’s first major step out of the shadow of singer Jeff Tweedy’s first band, Uncle Tupelo, and freed him to follow his own sonic course, a famously troubled one. This was Wilco’s first New York City appearance since the drug overdose of former member Jay Bennett, conspicuous in his absence since being let go after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band’s widely accepted classic.
But from the first muddy, chugging chords of “Wilco (The Song),” off the band’s new album of Americana-inflected rock, no one within the friendly confines seemed too sentimental. At its core, the show celebrated the band as it stands. During “California Stars,” one of only two old Mermaid Avenue songs in the band’s set, Tweedy even forgot some of the lyrics.
The florescent pink Wonder Wheel turned slowly over Left Field, JFK-bound planes drifted behind the Parachute Jump’s flashing red lights, and Wilco managed the lineup’s current balancing act: mixing quiet, pretty folk music with eruptions of atonal noise, precise rhythms, bluesy jams, and even soul. Sometimes these elements fought for air within a single song, as with the band’s beautiful rendition of Sky Blue Sky’s “You Are My Face.”
After Bennett's departure, the vacuum was filled by Nels Cline, a virtuoso guitarist. Bennett's talents for pop songwriting and arrangement were replaced with Cline’s passionate bluesy riffs and visceral noise. In a black shirt and bright red pants, the lead guitarist often stole Jeff Tweedy’s spotlight. During A Ghost Is Born’s “Handshake Drugs,” Cline stabbed at his guitar with a unique violence, strangling from his instrument notes that squealed and hissed. On “Impossible Germany,” his guitar work suddenly became angular and limber, reminiscent of another guitar god, Tom Verlaine. He filled “Jesus, etc” with yawning slide guitar before achieving his greatest musical violence in “Misunderstood,” the only song performed from 1996’ Being There. During the song, he whipped his hand off the strings, as if angrily igniting a chainsaw.
Tweedy had plenty of his own moments. He sounds entirely at ease within his songs. His raspy voice hushed quiet sweetness one moment and screamed for “Something in my veins/ Bloodier than blood,” on “Shot In The Arm” the next, as if he were still in the desperate throes of addiction (he kicked a prescription drug habit years ago). His banter (“You guys really look good. I’m not just saying that.”) kept the audience buttered up, as he embraced his inner showmen, leading the crowd in a rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” and briefly lifting his guitar to play it behind his head during “I’m The Man Who Loves You.” Tweedy was the portrait of a serious musician, trying his hardest to not take anything very seriously.
Wilco gets grief from the press for being too predictable, but no boredom could be detected in the thousands of happy attendees, nor in the performers. Indeed, it was almost anti-climactic when Leslie Feist and Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste joined Wilco on stage. Their contributions were barely notable, as if swallowed up by the momentum Wilco had steadied over their two-hour-long, free flowing, consistently excellent set. Wilco has emerged from years of drama to become a truly great band, even if a predictable one, with little use for guest stars.
Yo La Tengo, whom Tweedy called “one of the greatest bands ever” when they joined Wilco onstage, opened the concert with a fantastic daylight set, but their casually dressed bodies could barely be detected between the metallic glare of amps and equipment coming offstage. Rather than match Wilco’s finely tuned showmanship, the three-piece band achieved epic transcendence by turning in on themselves. Their closing song, a 10-minute-long “The Story Of Yo La Tengo,” found them basking in washes of distortion and propulsive rhythm, their backs nearly turned on the crowd. They seemed self-assured. The audience could fend for themselves.