I got (The Album) and listened to "(The Song)." The only next logical step was to check out this summer's aptly named Wilco (The Tour). For many groups, such simplistic titles would be an indication that the band had become too relaxed for its own good, churning out familiar stuff and touring on cruise control. But in the case of Jeff Tweedy & Co., this self-titled trend feels less like a half-assed outing and more like a proud declaration of musical accomplishment. It's true that (The Album) portrays a Wilco more at ease than earlier albums, and while this lack of tension cuts down on the tormented genius element that drives so many groups, it does give some insanely talented musicians a chance to just kick back and have fun. The fun was evident at the Maine State Pier, and it translated into over two hours of career spanning, crowd bantering, lengthy jamming Wilco-y goodness.
For those without day jobs, that fun began at Bullmoose, the local indie-music store and shamelessly plugged workplace of yours truly, when lead guitarist Nels Cline stopped by to meet fans, shake hands and talk shop. From the get-go, vibes were laid back. When he noticed the store was playing Sky Blue Sky in the background, he said something to the effect of, "I haven't heard this album in a while. [pause] It's pretty good." The crowd was manageable and relaxed, giving everyone a chance to hang out, chat and get a photo and autograph. After the meet and greet and a local interview, Nels went vinyl shopping, in no hurry to take off. Nels' in-store set a tone for the night, as the group sauntered through a double-encore set, breaking frequently to address the crowd. On a night where showers were predicted, Tweedy told fans he'd stay as long as the weather held, a statement that rang true as precipitation picked up while the pier cleared out.
Despite selling out quickly, the pier's outdoor locale and proximity to the heart of Portland made it easy for ticketless fans to get in on the excitement without donating the contents of their wallet to a scalper. The show was audible for passersbys from a considerable distance, but for those who weren't satisfied simply listening, creative fans bought tickets to the nearest parking garage and watched from the top floor, while others even cruised by on their boats if they were lucky enough to have one. But the lucky folks who did get in got their money's worth and then some. Conor Oberst opened up with help from the Mystic Valley Band, and despite being renowned for his gloomy Bright Eyes outlook, seemed to be in good spirits. My brother Jake put it into perspective by noting that he only saw Oberst drink a couple beers. Last time my brother saw him, several years back, he said Oberst seemed uncomfortable and chugged beer after every song. Jake said both shows were fun, but Oberst's outlook feels sunnier now that he's started saving some vocal duties for other members of his band and some booze for everyone else.
Wielding a decade and a half of great songs, Wilco opened their set with "(The Song)," a short and straightforward introduction to their new album, followed by a spot-on rendition of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," the sprawling heartfelt anthem that commences Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The meshing of old and new was a fitting beginning to a collection of songs that drew from every official Wilco album, along with Mermaid Avenue, their Woody Guthrie-showcasing collaboration with Billy Bragg. The night boasted sincere renditions of hits like "Jesus, Etc.," but it also offered less radio friendly fare for longtime fans, like the schizophrenic "Misunderstood," that jumps between calmness and chaos.
Tweedy's vocals command attention in studio recordings, but in person it was the countless guitar solos of Nels and Pat Sansone that stole the show. Earlier in the day Nels told an interviewer that he'd been listening to a lot of dark metal lately, and it made perfect sense when I saw him head banging on stage. I had high expectations for Nels' ridiculously funky "Impossible Germany" solo all night, and it still blew me away. But it just got silly in the second encore, when Nels and Pat used "Hoodoo Voodoo" as a launching pad for an epic guitar duel that left me with an exhausted grin on my face. With a live show like this, who needs song titles and album names? Just stamp Wilco on it and it'll sell itself.