Wilco: Sweet sounds to go with self-destruction

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, AZ., February 2, 2012

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If I were a songwriter I would be like Jeff Tweedy.

Now, who is Jeff Tweedy? He is the leader of the Chicago-based band, Wilco.

And why would I write songs like Tweedy?

Because it takes an artist to make self-destructing sound entertaining, like Tweedy wrote in "Shot in the Arm" ("The ashtray says you were up all night when you went to bed with your darkest mind your pillow wept and covered your eyes you finally slept while the sun caught fire").

Or to capture a slice of Americana ("Oh, the band marched on in formation the brass was phasing tunes I couldn't place windows open and raining in maroon, yellow, blue, gold and gray").

It also takes skills to back those lyrics with layers of sound, which is accomplished by bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, and multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen.

Tweedy formed Wilco in 1994 after the demise of his other band, Uncle Tupelo.

Wilco has released eight studio albums, including last year's "The Whole Love."

They played a sold-out show Jan. 21 on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe.

I was there as part of my birthday celebration, which included seeing the punk band Social Distortion on Jan. 28 in Flagstaff.

After taking my seat in the orchestra level of the 3,000-seat Gammage Auditorium at ASU, I noticed the stage was decorated with white fabric that hung from the ceiling and resembled paper ghosts that children make in elementary school.

During the show, lights from the balcony bathed the fabric in a sea of blue, green, red and yellow.

In the mixture of instruments on stage was a felt owl, whose plastic eyes spontaneously blinked.

While listening to the music of White Denim, from Austin, Texas, I spotted Cline watching from the side of the stage.

So did others, and soon whispers of "It's Nels Cline" reached me.

At this point, I took time to reflect on my history with Wilco and how it got to this point.

The first Wilco song I ever heard was, "I'm the Man Who Loves You," from the 2002 album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

It was on a compilation sampler that I found in a magazine.

The sampler included a song by Sonic Youth - my reason for buying the magazine - but I found myself hooked on the sweet-sounding Wilco.

"I'm the Man Who Loves You" opens with a jagged guitar riff, then launches into a poppy rhythm of acoustic and electric guitars, bass, synthesizers, percussion, and horns in support of Tweedy's opening lyrics, "All I can see is black and white and white and pink with blades of blue that lay between the words I think on a page I was meaning to send to you."

From there I started my Wilco collection.

When "Sky Blue Sky" came out in 2007, I was living in Midland, Mich., and drove to the Bay City Mall to purchase it.

Once again, I was floored by hearing simple complexity (best song, in my opinion, is "Impossible Germany").

The album became the companion on the crisscrossing roads of Midland County and on flights home to New Mexico.

I was lost in my thoughts and returned to the present when the house lights darkened and the band stepped on stage.

They started with the delicate song, "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," but were soon rollin' through "I Might," "Bull Black Nova" and "I'll Fight."

The last time I saw Wilco was in 2005 in Flagstaff.

Unlike that show, when he was fresh out of rehab for a problem with prescription painkillers, Tweedy did not distance himself from the audience. Instead he smiled and laughed and dedicated a song to his sister and aunt.

In order for Wilco to produce its network of sound, the stage was crowded with instruments and amplifiers, leaving Tweedy, Stirratt, Cline and Sansone little room to move.

Both Kotche and Jorgensen stay tucked behind drums and keyboards.

Despite the confinement, Cline still worked his guitar into frenzy on "Impossible Germany," "Art of Almost" and "One Wing."

Such lovely sounds to carry the night and when they played their final song, "I'm the Man Who Loves You," I smiled.