Alt-all-stars Wilco ranged across their massive discography when they played an extended, immense set in Brooklyn. The Chicago act has been setting the indie-country bar for over a decade now, from singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt’s first post-Uncle Tupelo work, A.M., to last year’s best-selling Sky Blue Sky (QRO review), from the Grammy-award winning A Ghost Is Born to performing unrecorded material from the late, great folk musician Woody Guthrie with today’s great folkster, Billy Bragg, in Mermaid Avenue Volumes I & II. They’ve ranged from battles with their label to battles within the band (both chronicled in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), to recently being featured in a series of Volkswagen commercials. Along the way, they’ve earned a large following and a large staple of songs, all of which were on display at the large McCarren Park Pool on Wednesday, August 13th.
Unlike some long-running acts whose live shows are sometimes selfishly devoted primarily to their new material, or others whose are timidly focused only on older ‘hits’, Wilco’s set saw near parity between their last five studio albums (excluding only their initial A.M.), along with one track each from either volume of Mermaid Avenue. They didn’t pander to the Big Apple crowd by opening with the slow, quiet “Via Chicago” (from 1999’s Summerteeth), whose opening lyrics were, “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright with me” (albeit it said so sadly and sweetly…), but the piece’s sudden guitar & drum explosions from Nels Clire & Glenn Kotche (respectively) were an extra shock, live. Mermaid Avenue then got some early exposure, thanks to Volume II’s “Blood of the Lamb” (with clarinet from one of the guest horn section, ‘Total Pros’). Slightly subdued as an opening, this did lead smoothly into Sky Blue Sky’s wonderful harmonic “You Are My Face”.
What was notable was that practically all the songs, whether early or late, side-project or central, seemed to be ‘audience favorites’, with sing-a-longs all over the place. Things did seem to pick up from “Face”, with Ghost’s “Hummingbird” and definitely “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (the lead-off on 2002’s seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Summerteeth’s “A Shot In the Arm” did give the pretty set a shot of epic rock, but Wilco could easily follow that up with Sky Blue Sky’s blues-y, heartfelt “Side With the Seeds”, and the wistful “Misunderstood” (another lead-off, from 1996’s epic double-album, Being There).
It was only after that major group sing-a-long that frontman Tweedy finally talked to the audience, apologizing that, “It’s been flowing from one song to the other. I don’t mean to ignore you or anything. We know you’re there.” Wilco stayed Being There with its second track, but were still going “Far, Far Away”, and then reached across the shores with Sky Blue Sky’s impossibly good “Impossible Germany”. A “nice breeze” carried the three-person horns section Total Pros to join for Summerteeth’s “Pieholden Suite” and Mermaid Avenue’s American, but anything but local, “California Stars”, where one could almost feel an Okie dreaming of life on the sunny West Coast.
Wilco playing “Far, Far Away” live at McCarren Park Pool, NY:
Tweedy relayed to the back of the audience all the “silly things” the front was saying (like, “I like music!” and “I love everybody!”), but really let the rock rip before the encore break. “Handshake Drugs” was definitely more rockin’ than on Ghost, yet didn’t lose its laid-back charm. “Pot Kettle Black” played epic (especially in the line paired with the title stanza, “Calling a pot, kettle, black / Every song is a comeback”), and if following it up with its Yankee follower, “Poor Places”, pulled the tempo down a bit too much, Wilco slid effortlessly from it right into Ghost’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. Tweedy led the crowd into a clap-along, but encouraged more, saying “Take it, it’s yours.” He even challenged the audience by saying, “It’s a simple beat – it might grow into something more elaborate one day…”
And that that it did – first carrying on after the band stopped, then getting an extra half-clap thrown in every other beat. When the band returned from their encore break, Tweedy had to praise the crowd, saying:
I gotta hand it to you guys – we’ve done that song a lot. We’ve played it around the world. We’ve done it with the hand claps, where we end it with the hand claps, and the audience takes it, and everywhere in the world, they go, ‘Clap. Clap.’ like they’re supposed to. No, all you free-thinkers here…
It’s like what my dad said about Bob Dylan, “I don’t know what he’s been smokin’, but he’s a ‘free-thinker’…”
Wilco returning from encore break with “Jesus, Etc.” live at McCarren Park Pool, NY:
In some ways, the main ‘body’ of the set felt like just a run-up to that clapping and not one, but two encores – of five-to-six songs each – that comprised a virtual ‘second half’ of a set that stretched to an epic two-and-a-half hours. Every song seemed grand enough to be a finisher, but then you’d see the roadie come out with yet another guitar for Tweedy. Yankee’s grooving “Jesus, Etc.” opened up the encores, before the Total Pros rejoined for a triptych of upbeat negative songs, starting with Summerteeth’s rocking “Can’t Stand It”, then Sky Blue Sky doubling it up with a blues-y ride through “Hate It Here” and “Walken”. Wilco finished up the first encore with Yankee’s catchy and always welcome “I’m the Man Who Loves You” (after Tweedy bemoaned the lack of gong, like Kotche had when the played in Boston).
Wilco playing “Hate It Here” live at McCarren Park Pool, NY:
Second encores, two-hour-and-a-half sets – these are not the terrain of many bands, but Wilco is certainly one that can pull it off. And Wilco returned with a crowd demand (that was admittedly on their set list), the gets-in-your-head Yankee “Heavy Metal Drummer”, but then they jumped off their set list (with Total Pros proving themselves as such, jumping in and on) for Ghost’s down-home honky-tonk riff on commercial radio, “Late Greats”. Being There’s “Kingpin” might have been another song too slow for so late in the day (well, not that late – McCarren shows always start early, and there was a 10:00 PM curfew), but “Monday” and “Outtasite (Out of Mind)” (from the same record) brought the rock back in full force. By the time Ghost’s “I’m a Wheel” finally finished things out, one could forgive the crowd for being almost too spent to join in the evening’s bombastic conclusion. The crowd was also a bit older than the usual Williamsburg hipsters who populate McCarren (QRO venue review) – ‘Wilco-age’ should be some sort of defined age group in indie-rock circles – but Wilco’s a band that’s been doing what it loves for a long time now – and oh, so, still it is…
Wilco playing “I’m the Man Who Loves You” live at McCarren Park Pool, NY: