Friday, September 17, 2010

Wilco - Aspen Snowmass Festival 9/3/2010

Let me say right off that this was one of the best rock 'n' roll concerts I've ever seen. Truly, I put it up there with the best shows I've seen by U2, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Grateful Dead, The Black Crowes and others. I know that's a big statement, but its true. I found myself floored that in 2010, I can still find a rock band that can blow me away to my core. Hallelujah! And I'm very surprised that Wilco is such a band, a couple years ago, I'd never have thought that would be true. Sometimes I just miss the boat on a certain band maybe because my tastes change over time or the band develops in some way that lets me appreciate them, whatever the reason. In this case, I don’t think my tastes have changed that much, but I do think that Wilco has developed into a band that I can really get into since Nels Cline, Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen joined in 2004 and finalized what I believe is the strongest lineup of their career. In my mind, they’ve successfully balanced the dark, arty, ambient noise-rock elements of their music with the rooted, soulful, classic Americana. I also think bandleader Jeff Tweedy is probably a happier and emotionally healthier person than he has been in the past, which naturally comes across in the music. And most importantly, I think Wilco has simply become more seasoned, skilled, and experienced while not losing any of their passion and drive.

So going up to Aspen, Colorado to see my first Wilco show since I became a fan, I had pretty high hopes and expectations for the show. I was extremely surprised, from about mid-way through the 2+ hour show until the end, to find my hopes and expectations shattered and exceeded in every way. My jaw was hanging open and I was grinning like a fool, that’s how amazed and thrilled I was at the rock brilliance I was witnessing. Wilco are frickin’ tight, especially while rocking out so hard. These guys were killing it! And all these Wilco fans were just smiling their knowing smiles and singing along like it was a commonplace experience for them (which it probably is), while I, a newcomer, was blown away, surprised even beyond what I was expecting that Wilco were this powerful! I know that seeming musical telepathy only comes from lots and lots of time playing together, which Wilco do with a relentless touring schedule of very long concerts (these guys earlier this year were doing 3+ hour 38-song two-set shows regularly). I knew they were really good based on watching the Ashes DVD, but being there in person, watching and listening to them gradually build the intensity over the course of 2 hours (a short 26 song festival set for them) truly floored me and took my appreciation to an entirely different level. Seeing this show was a lot like the first time I saw the Grateful Dead; I was filled with ecstasy and all I could think about was “When is the next time I get to see this band?!” I will now go see Wilco anywhere, anytime I am able. You never know how long a good thing like this will last. I am now kicking myself for all the times in the past 5 years that I could have seen Wilco but did not. I feel fortunate that I finally caught the Wilco train while its still going strong.
So what makes Wilco so great? Wilco play as a true rock ensemble, and by that I mean a collective of musicians who a) are trying to make their part add to the whole to make it better and b) really, really listen to one another. This, too, sounds like the Grateful Dead, but the Dead never rehearsed and they definitely took a laissez faire approach to making musical magic, while Wilco seem bent on tight arrangements but somehow with them it doesn’t sterilize the magic, it just makes it incredibly tight. Wilco’s realm is a diverse palate of American music style, also like the Dead, touching on folk, dissonant noise rock, rock ‘n’ roll, 60s pop, soul, classic R&B and a bit of country now and again. There are not a lot of solos, their music is more about hitting a rhythm groove and digging deep into it. Kingpin’s wicked slide guitar riff was so heavy and nasty, I was hearing Led Zeppelin in my head. Wilco slowly builds up a head of steam as the concert goes on and by the end of the show, that train is barreling down the tracks, unstoppably strong rock music. It’s not complicated music, but it is precise and perfectly timed. It’s not too dense, but it is rich and full in arrangements. It’s not showboaty, but the band is filled with brilliant musicians playing as hard as they can at times (Nels Cline on guitar and Glenn Kotche on drums, in particular, are madmen, just wailing on their instruments with gleeful abandon). For me, live rock music doesn’t get any better than this, folks. I don't say that lightly and keep in mind the literally hundreds of rock concerts I've seen in my life that I am favorably comparing this Wilco show to. I do believe, as a live band, I like Wilco as much as any band I’ve been able to see, and that is some pretty heady company, I’d say.
And just so you know I'm not alone in my ravings, here is a review of a London show from just last week.
So, my friends, here I am, with yet another post praising the charms of Wilco, risking boring you or being accused of unbalanced obsessiveness (fair claims, both), all in hopes of doing you a service and convincing you to get yourself to a damn Wilco show! You can thank me later.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

David Fricke of Rolling Stone Gets High On The Crowes

The Black Crowes' Say Goodnight To The Bad Guys tour has really started to roll in the past couple weeks with reportedly stellar shows in St. Louis, Columbus, Chicago, Detroit and now again in Nashville at the historic Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. While those of us hardcore fans who have not yet been to any shows on this tour resort to examining the setlists for tasty nuggets, favorites, and wished-for rarities (and there have been plenty of those already) in order to get a handle on how the tour is going, there is also the first-hand accounts of what its been like to be at the shows. Now the Crowes messageboards are full of opinionated and picky arm-chair quarterbacks and you get the typical range of comments, from the be-happy-with-whatever-they-play folks to the unsatisfiable complainers who wouldn't be happy with an entire set of unreleased songs that haven't been played in 50 years. You can take what you will from people's opinions about concerts that they didn't actually attend, but the thing that is getting me most excited is the majority of the first-hand accounts. Many fans have been reporting that regardless of what songs are being played, the band are clearly in a very positive head-space and there have been shows at which even long-time fans have been impressed and surprised at the outpouring of passion and musical intensity coming from the stage. Equally encouraging are the reports of the audience response and attitude at the best shows so far. It seems that in certain cities, the band/audience synergy has been particularly high. One fan had this to say:
I gotta say that this was one of the most exhuberant audiences I have been a part of - over the past 20 years. That place was rumbling from start to finish. I'm sure the acoustics of the Ryman had something to do with the actual VOLUME in that place but there is no escaping the fact the energy was through the roof. I was really blown away by the support of the Nashville audience and really pleased to see and feel the love for this band.

Chris was absolutely a man possessed for "Morning Song". My friend and I just looked at each other afterwards... staring in disbelief at what we had just witnessed. These guys are on fire and there is no stopping them right now. They are accomplished and happy about where they are and how loyal the fans have been and it shows.

By the way, I also saw Fricke at the show scribbling away on his notepad. He was ROCKING and it was obvious to me how much he enjoyed the show

David Fricke of Rolling Stone has been a supporter of the band in the past and his articulate review of the Nashville show paints a vivid picture of the emotional experience of being at a show on this tour. I think this is what rock 'n' roll (and church?) is at its best: a communal jubilee celebration of life using music as the vehicle for the message and the means to bring people together. I can't wait for the Fillmore in SF in December!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Alberta Cross

Another contemporary band that caught my ear. I've been circling around them for awhile now, but I'm starting to get serious as they are coming to town to play live at The Rhythm Room in Phoenix next week. Tour dates here

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dawes - Contemporary Laurel Canyon Folk Rock

Dawes - That Western Skyline

Anyone checking out Sugartown can easily see that my tastes run towards rock music as it was made in the '60s and'70s. Not all that many bands these days are riding that particular musical train. So although there are not a whole lot of contemporary bands that really do it for me, I like to highlight the ones that do grab me. I definitely have an appreciation for the Laurel Canyon sound of the late '60s, being a big fan of Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Chris Hillman, etc., and mellow Southern California rootsy folk rockers Dawes seem to be right up that alley. I'm not sure I'm completely won over by all their music (its a little too laid back for my tastes and could stand a little bit more rock), but their song That Western Skyline (video in link above) definitely got my attention. Songwriting has to be really strong for me to get excited with music from this genre and I think they've hit one out of the park on this particular song. Lyrics and lead vocals by Taylor Goldsmith (sounding a little bit like Stephen Stills) are particularly strong and the music achieves a bittersweet vibe nicely, starting out gentle and soft and gradually building to a good crescendo, giving the earnest emotions a bit of dynamic ebb and flow. Good stuff. Check out more at: