Wilco’s Free-Jazz Experiments Rumble into NYC

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Nels Cline (left) and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco perform at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on March 21.

(Photo: Rebecca Taylor/MSG Photos)

Wilco’s long-running brand of left-field Americana has endured for decades, giving the band legacy status and helping them to sell out large theaters around the country. As the chill of winter fades into spring, Jeff Tweedy and company have taken up residency in the Beacon Theatre in New York City for four nights of career-spanning setlists.

The band is currently supporting last year’s well-received Schmilco (dBpm Records), an album that is stripped down in terms of the instrumentation. The songs are comparatively simple, something that Wilco has strayed from ever since their first release, A.M., and works well when mixed with the band’s varied catalogue. 

On March 21 at the Beacon, night three of their four-night run, the band started off with “On And On And On,” an atmospheric tune that digs a deep into their varied bag of styles and emotions. That tune led into the first three songs from their latest release, which is a familiar trifecta that Wilco has been performing as of late. Their classic “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” followed, prompting ecstatic cheers from the crowd as Tweedy stepped into the lyrics, “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue.”

During this song, Wilco pulled a trick that distinguishes them from their contemporaries. During the start of the second verse, guitarist Nels Cline began veering off the tracks. Using an array of effects pedals, the jazz/rock guitarist pulled the band in a direction closer to what you may see him do during one of his residencies at John Zorn’s East Village venue, The Stone. At certain points during the song, as Tweedy stayed the course, the entire band around him broke down into free-jazz spasms.

Wilco’s incessant urge to experiment is its greatest quality. As Jeff Tweedy continues to write really great songs in the American singer/songwriter tradition, the band continues to evolve as a live act, which keeps things continuously fresh. If you listen to live versions of the songs from just a couple years ago, they sound quite different. This is important for a band that depends on a dedicated fan-base to keep returning show after show.

On “Art Of Almost,” one of the band’s most rocking tunes, they extend the improvisational section to allow Cline to go wild. Reverting back to his pedals, the guitarist created a devastating wall of sound that washed over the entire theater. It became apparent that the crowd, although they’ve come to witness the legacy of one of the strongest songwriting institutions around, digs a bit of improv rock-out too, because they screamed the loudest they have all night when the song abruptly ended.

The following four songs would come from four different albums, relying more on Tweedy’s sing-along sections than guitar flexing. “Impossible Germany,” a fan-favorite and another song that infamously features an extended improv section when performed live, followed the quartet of sing-alongs and once again set Cline free to roam about his fret board. The tune, from Sky Blue Sky , has become Cline’s magnum opus; everyone in the audience knew to fix their eyes on him after the vocal portion of the song was over.

Cline’s ability to take the audience on a ride, playing the yang to Tweedy’s yin, validated why the Wilco bandleader added him to the roster back in 2004. Cline’s charisma can reach even the upper balcony of the 2,894-person crowd, which produced a thunderous reaction once the jam settled back into the familiar outro groove. 

The band’s need to experiment has brought them beyond the stage, too, as they enter into the role as festival curators for their fifth Solid Sound Festival, a biennial event held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. This year, the roster boasts crème de la crème songwriters and experimental/jazz acts. Case in point: Kurt Vile, Kevin Morby, Peter Wolf and Andy Shauf will perform alongside Robert Glasper Experiment, Dawn of Midi, Jeff Parker Trio and Idris Ackamoor. 

By showcasing both a knack for classic American music and experimental sounds, Wilco is contextualizing its own music through the artists joining the ranks at their festival. With two nights of Wilco sets, a performance by legendary cross-genre rockers Television, and some other left-field additions (like a comedy stage), the Solid Sound Festival is different from any other lineup on the festival circuit, much like a live Wilco show itself.

Tickets for Solid Sound Festival are on sale now. For more information, click here. DB



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