September 24, 2015

‘Where Do I Begin’: Wilco at the State Theatre

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By the time Wednesday night swung around, a day of abstract classes and abject meetings had left me feeling like my spirit had been ripped from my body and like my body was dejectedly content with walking from thing to revolving thing out of obligation or boredom, rather than necessity or desire. So when the clock ticked away my day’s final compulsion, I was more than ready to book it down to the commons in the hope that Wilco would be able to concoct a sound or two that’d staple my mind and body back together again — and maybe even convince them to get along for awhile.

I picked up my ticket (I attended solo) and located my seat a few rows back from the stage — to the left of which was situated a commandingly large armrest-commondeerer, and to the right of which was an empty chair, which remained conspicuously devoid of life for the entire night. I sat back into my seat’s cushion, and, in waiting for the opener, devoted some time to scrutinizing the backs of my hands and the oppressively full State Theatre. The former were unremarkable and a little hazy in the slightly dimmed lights and synesthetic confusion of some 2,000 voices chattering. The latter was brimming and churning with people, the vast majority of whom (to my modest surprise, as I thought Wilco had a greater millennial appeal) were middle aged and very, very hyped on the prospect of seeing Wilco.

Eventually the lights dimmed, and the crowd — apparently still not ready to quiet down for the night despite the accession of William Tyler, our opener, to the sole stool up on the stage — kept on talking. Tyler was unflashy in appearance and silent as he picked up his guitar and plunged headlong into his first composition (which he told us after the fact was called “Missionary Ridge,” about driving through the hills of Tennessee).

Having not listened to Tyler before the show, I don’t know what I was expecting out of a Wilco opener; All I can say is that it wasn’t American Primitivism. Tyler, from what I could tell by the four songs he played, has taken this guitar tradition (the brainchild of John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Robbie Basho, developed some 50 years ago) and, if not updated it, kept it interesting and captivating.
The problem, often, with dazzling guitar techniques like his is that, despite the fact that American Primitivism is a wedding of the intellectual (classical music) and traditional (folk and blues music), it is very, very easy for a guitarist, who has the ability to blur his hands in celerity without missing a note, to remove himself, in his technicality, from both the intellectually captivating and the every-day human aspects of his craft. Not so for Tyler. As his left hand raced across the neck and his right hand’s fingers jigged excitedly on the strings, never missing their mark. He coaxed from his axe (which was acoustic for two tracks and electric for the rest) the kind of melodies that I’m sure the Gods must folkdance to. His playing, fast and sure, reeked of the folksy spatiality that differentiates Primitivism from Electroacoustic and New Age; motifs were repeatedly grasped onto, tossed around in pastoral playfulness and released into liberated sonority as they wilted, gradually wrested from our minds by new and increasingly exciting ideas, slowly to the floor.



And as he played — his head slowly thrashing about like it was floating in the sounds he was making — I progressively felt more and more like I knew him. His songs were wordless and he, when talking in between them, didn’t say much of substance, but something about his playing — the way it could come alive, envelop and flutter around the room — told me everything about him: that he has dreams he thinks he’ll never achieve, that he’s lonely, that he can’t help but feel the rush of the earth past him while he’s standing still, that his art is all that can reel him back into reality when his head starts drifting into the ether or into the doldrums.

Hell if I know if any of that is even close to being true about him, though. I guess all I do know is that William Tyler built a bridge for me with his music that let me push all that buildup in my own brain onto him. And for that, his short little set was fantastic.

All good things must end, though, and after his last song and a brief bow he ceded to a soundcheck. I mulled about the State’s orchestra for awhile in mild anticipation, glad that all the components of my being’s totality were at least a little reigned in and yoked together after Tyler’s set. I was still, however, hoping that Wilco could continue to change the course of my Wednesday for the better; if not in the same manner as Tyler then definitely to the same degree.
Feeling a hint more lucid than before, I turned around and really tried to take in the crowd: It was comprised, in order of descending frequency, of unsettlingly amorous couples between the ages of 45 and 55; drugged out dads with overgrown wires of hair calling attention simultaneously to their hazy eyes (vacant, I’m sure, from trips of yore), glistening scalps and cowboy hats; the kind of person who has trouble differentiating between dancing and yoga; pre-drunken gaggles of mid-30 year olds and (tied for last place) college students and the slumberous elderly. But before I could come to any conclusions about what exactly this kind of spread implicated, the lights cut out and the crowd erupted. Wilco was gracing the stage.

They burst into “EKG,” the first track off of their new album Star Wars, whose paradoxically appealing dissonance succeeded in getting everybody present ready to rumble. But as “EKG” transitioned into “More…” and “More…” and then “Random Name Generator,” a gloomy realization began to settle over me: Wilco was opening up the show by playing Star Wars (a decidedly unexciting, if listenable, attempt at staying cool) in its entirety.

And so the band cycled — wordlessly, almost as an obligation — through Star Wars’ 11 grueling tracks. There were brief spurts of interest or appeal scattered amidst the utterly boring opening 40 minutes of the set, but there wasn’t nearly enough music of substance to get the crowd out of their seats or me feeling interested. But it wasn’t that Tweedy and his cohorts were only playing music in which the crowd was markedly disinterested and to which nobody was emotionally connected — it was that they were playing this music without even attempting to cultivate a connection. They slogged through their new tracks removedly, unattached to the music they were playing and without taking breaks between tracks to greet the audience.

In my disconnected haze, this lack of an attempt to make any personal connection was almost affrontive. And it wasn’t just because they were playing new material; it was because Wilco seemed inhuman. At its best, their sound is personable and relatable; it’s the zenith of the kind of music everybody feels like they could make in a garage with a few of their friends. Tweedy’s lyrics are written with a jumbled everyman vocabulary, and, when you listen to them, their songs almost come out of your speakers looking like Jeff Tweedy, such is the degree that he imbues every composition with his view of the world. But their performance of Star Wars was bereft of any points of connection between rock star and fan, and it left me sedentary like everyone else in the State, wishing for this show to hurry up and end.

That is, until the band finished “Magnetized” (the last track on Star Wars), and the lights went up while Jeff Tweedy approached the mic. “How’s it going everybody? I just wanted to check in and make sure you guys are having a good time. We’re gonna keep playing, but I’ll just periodically check back in on you guys.” A flicker of humanity! And then, with Wilco out of new music to play, the lights turned purple and a magnetic shift occurred: “Handshake Drugs,” from A Ghost is Born.

With this, the night shifted from a dismal, pedantic showcase of mediocre music to a deluge of engaging, well-loved Wilco hits. An electrified version of “Kamera” followed, and pretty soon the crowd was starting to stand. A handful of classic Wilco cuts later and the entire venue was on its feet singing along with Tweedy to “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

Through the rest of their main set and both the first (“Spiders(Kidsmoke)”) and the second (a brilliant all-acoustic roundup of favorites from “Misunderstood” to “California Stars”) encore, something began to dawn on me.

With the gloomy cloud that was their performance of Star Wars all but dissipated, Wilco succeeded at something which few artists ever really succeed at: creating a veritable connection with their audience. And I don’t mean the kind of connection that stems from a particularly chummy performer-audience relationship — any musician either beautiful or amicable enough can muster one of those with a flashy smile or show of wit. Nor do I mean a purely song-based connection, in which the audience relishes their beloved hits while a jaded performer churns them out.

No, I mean a slightly more unattainable connection than either of those: one which concocts a tenuous thread between performer and audience-member that is defined by its moderation of adoration on the part of the fan, and of star power on the part of the performer. A connection which manifests itself in the uninhibited dancing of an audience that knows it doesn’t have to be dancing. A connection, in this particular and exemplary case, that was most tangible with 2,000 people from pretty disparate walks of life singing in unison that “All [They] Really Need is a Shot in the Arm.” A connection, in my case, between two people — myself and Jeff Tweedy — that blossomed from the fact that both of us have felt all the same stuff in the same way and for, at times, what are probably similar reasons; the only difference is that he decided to write it all down and perform it for us.

Troy Sherman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]