Sharp Darts: Wilco Comes Alive | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: Wilco Comes Alive

Ashes of American Flags makes clear that with this band, the show's the thing.


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I've been listening to Wilco ever since 89X in Detroit started spinning "Box Full of Letters" in 1995, but even then I was an Uncle Tupelo hard-liner—as far as I was concerned, Jeff Tweedy's new project was just a decent band with a couple good songs. In the intervening years Wilco has evolved, into a respected and somewhat auteurist rock group, then into a high-powered collective dabbling in fairly far-out experimentation while retaining enough mainstream appeal to fill huge venues. But until recently, my opinion hadn't changed—decent band, couple good songs.

My mistake has apparently been to judge Wilco almost entirely by their recordings. Their studio work is respectable, but I was never compelled to give any one disc more than two or three spins before shelving it and forgetting about it. I've only seen Wilco live once, at the 2005 Farm Aid concert in Tinley Park, where they seemed cowed by the huge crowd, as though they were afraid mainstream country fans would be hostile to their music.

But judging by their new concert film, Ashes of American Flags, for the past few years at least I should've been seeing them every chance I got. The 13 songs in Ashes, as well as the seven in the special features, were filmed on five nights of a 2008 tour, in Nashville, Mobile, New Orleans, Tulsa, and D.C. The consistently solid performances, which feel easygoing no matter how high the energy level, are all shot through with a wild improvisational streak that runs way hotter onstage than in the studio. In concert the songs become sprawling, massive things—the six main members are frequently assisted by a horn section—and wander far from their familiar arrangements.

Tweedy may take the spotlight on the albums, but on Ashes he's frequently upstaged by the group's two most virtuosic members, drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline. After four years in the band, Cline had settled on a balance between his love of abstraction and noise and the demands of traditional rock 'n' roll lead guitar, and he lights up pretty much every song in the film with one of his inimitable solos, full of weird scales, fractured phrasing, and Bizarro World shredding.

Tweedy's willingness to let his bandmates outshine him is a very good thing for Wilco. The stage is full of huge talents jostling for space, and they all sound better when he's not trying to keep them under his thumb. It's a quality Tweedy shares with great front men like Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, and Jerry Garcia, and the film often seems to be trying to play up such similarities—though it's not clear whether the guys in Wilco are conscious of them. I'm pretty confident Tweedy knew that the Nudie suit he wore on two nights would remind people of Gram Parsons, but I doubt he thinks his role as the calm center of a musical storm is something that links Wilco to the Grateful Dead.

Ashes of American Flags is the work of Christoph Green and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, who'd previously documented a Tweedy solo tour in Sunken Treasure and captured a Wilco performance for the Chicago installment of the Burn to Shine series. Ashes screened twice at the Music Box during the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival in March, and though there aren't any more Chicago showings currently scheduled, Nonesuch is releasing the DVD this month. As a Record Store Day treat, independent shops were allowed to start selling it on April 18; iTunes, Amazon, and chain stores will get it on April 28.

The movie doesn't seem to be trying to enshrine Wilco, but rather to portray them as modest rock heroes, unburdened by mythology. The bulk of the footage shows the band onstage, and the DV camera work is appropriately unfussy: Green and Canty don't rely on quick cuts, swooping crane shots, or dramatic pans across an ecstatic crowd, and as it turns out Wilco doesn't need that kind of flash. The film can linger for a remarkably long time on Cline taking an insane solo, because even if all he's doing is playing he's such a physical performer that all by himself he's completely transfixing.

The absence of any stage dressing—aside from the Nudie suit, of course—helps Wilco come off like an unpretentious bar band, albeit a bar band with an unusually sophisticated aesthetic and a large and devoted following. This is one more factor complicating their reputation as fussy studio formalists, which they earned with records like A Ghost Is Born. Though some of their improvisational excursions get close enough to Phish territory for me to understand Wilco's popularity with jam-band freaks, by and large their vibe is closer to Springsteen—workmanlike, not whimsical. All three guitarists and the bass player use the little red rubber gaskets from flip-top Grolsch bottles to hold their straps in place.

Because the movie isn't trying to duplicate the experience of a Wilco concert—it's only 88 minutes long, for one thing—it frequently cuts away from the music. The nonconcert footage generally falls into two categories. There are beautiful cinematic shots—long, artfully composed architectural essays on the fading downtown cores of Tulsa and Mobile, a flock of birds blackening the sky, slo-mo portraits of concertgoers before a show. And then there are band interviews, which occasionally threaten to break the spell.

Everybody in the current incarnation seems to be getting along—unlike in the 2002 Wilco doc I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which was captivating like a train wreck. That's not to say there's nothing interesting happening offstage. We get a look at Kotche with his beaten-up hands in a bowl of ice and Cline lying down with a cold pack under his neck; he says he's giving himself whiplash by thrashing around onstage and that two of his vertebrae are fusing. But Tweedy's backstage philosophizing is painfully self-serious—can we all agree that Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" is the last word we need to hear from a musician on the road about on how tough it is to be a musician on the road? Ashes, perhaps inadvertently, makes a case for the concert film as a genre: sometimes you can learn more about a man by watching him play than you can by listening to him talk.

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