When A Ghost Is Born came out, a group of friends and I embarked on what turned out to be an indelible trip that took us along the East Coast and back to the Midwest for a string of "intimate" Wilco shows. Though I've already clocked in four gigs on the European leg of the Sky Blue Sky tour, I was very much looking forward to these June dates, back on U.S. soil and with the usual crew.
Wilco, Pines Theater, June 24, 2007: When these shows were announced, the first venue that caught my eye was the Pines outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, for all the usual reasons: a general admission venue, a college town, a good reputation, as well as one more detail involving a certain rock tourist par excellence; a big, dumb rock song; and Wilco's equivalent of a public service announcement. Ultimately, the Pines became the linchpin for this whole excursion (at least until the Warsaw date was unveiled).
The Pines, indeed, lived up to its reputation. After spending a beautiful summer day (the kind that San Francisco rarely enjoys) in the park, we stumbled into the amphitheater for the show. I saw Wilco play a few outdoor venues just a couple of summers ago, but the Pines most reminded me of a gig from five years back, when a different lineup of the band played the John Anson Ford Theater in Los Angeles. Unlike the Greek Theaters, for example, in both Los Angeles and Berkeley, the Pines and the John Anson Ford have stages set into the hillside. Thus, as an audience member, you see the band almost literally framed by nature: verdant trees around them and twinkling skies above them. I can't tell you how cool this effect is.
Early in the day, we noticed an unusual amount of activity, such as a woman filming outside the venue and people walking by with laminates we hadn't previously seen. We soon learned that the Pines had been pinned as the multimedia hub for this tour; both VH1 and XM Radio were set to immortalize the show.
To our relief, we discovered that the film crew wouldn't be too intrusive; they managed to not invade the floor with cameras, though of course, we still stood the risk of having our every dorky move caught on film. Oddly, this concern mostly floated away as soon as the music started.
The difference between the Count Basie Theater and the Pines was evident from the moment doors opened, and the band delivered on the promise of the venue from the get-go, when they started with "Either Way," one of the two songs from Sky Blue Sky I hadn't yet heard live. If you've caught me humming or singing to myself at any point during the last month and a half, chances are this is the song I've been massacring. The tune didn't immediately strike me as a world changer, but the directness of both the lyrics and the arrangement snuck up on me, and it's become part of my internal soundtrack.
One of the other big surprises of the night was the return of "Kamera," now complete with Nels's stamp, in the form of an incredibly melodic guitar solo that echoed the song's main lilt. Speaking of, I guess this is as good an opportunity as any for my requisite gushing over Nels: you haven't heard "Impossible Germany" until you've heard it ringing out under the open skies.
The band had built on the strengths and quirks I had first witnessed in Europe, most tellingly in the sheer enjoyment they seemed to be milking from the shows. Glenn had kicked up his Shellac tribute so that all the crowd could see that he was ready to rock. For "Hummingbird," Jeff serenaded an older man at the edge of the stage, and he jumped into the crowd for his ending run/dance. During the instrumental jam toward the end of "Walken," he planted himself on the speaker in front of Sooz and Heidi while playing guitar.
From my vantage, I could see the rest of the band engaging in various shenanigans, such as Mike's Vanna-like presentation of Glenn before "Heavy Metal Drummer," Nels prodding both Mike and Glenn into making silly faces, and Glenn himself singing along to a bunch of the songs. If they are anything less than a happy band right now, they have a funny way of showing it.
The capper to the heavenly evening was "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." I'm not one to obsess over which songs the band should or shouldn't play, but I remain a sucker for the older tunes that don't get aired as often, especially if they're from Being There. If the footage of us jumping up and down to this song ever shows up on VH1, I won't be happy, but I wouldn't change a thing either.
After missing Low in Red Bank, I saw them tonight. Low was one of those bands I halfway grasped at in the mid-'90s, but apart from a few songs here and there, I never fully investigated them. Tonight, their music was at times startlingly beautiful, but they didn't seem like the right match for this sunny, outdoor venue. As I would later discover, we got the band during one of their more playful evenings. Alan even cracked some jokes, and the crowd was quite polite. We couldn't have guessed that this would be one of the better receptions they received over the next few shows.
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