After two years of not seeing Wilco, I made up for lost time as the band's 20th-anniversary tour finally came to the West Coast. First stop for me: the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
Wilco, Greek Theatre, Aug. 5, 2015: Los Angeles > Berkeley -- at least in terms of Greek theaters. I love my Cal roots, but LA's Greek Theatre is preferable in almost every way for music fans. I think it's smaller, the pit is ridiculously intimate, and the stage isn't 100 feet high, though the procurement of tickets can be a challenge. Also, it doesn't hurt that it's right in a friend's neighborhood, and we've made amazing memories there. If Wilco is playing at the Greek Theatre in LA, you know where to find me.
We took a slightly different tack from earlier visits: We hit the park at a mostly sane time, surrendering front and center spots to -- among others -- young men wearing Stormtrooper hats and waving tinsel and American flags. To their credit, they got a short shout-out from Jeff. Otherwise, apart from a dedication to Susan on the eve of their 20th wedding anniversary, Jeff indulged in little banter with the audience. Still, we found our spots just fine -- chalk it up to experience and the knowledge of lackadaisical LA audiences. Even better, the scorching skies had given way to cooler breezes. Early signs were all good.
After Solid Sound, I might not have needed to see this show. Who am I kidding? It's never a matter of "need" -- but at least I had an excuse to show up. On top of the 20th-anniversary angle, the band was now promoting Star Wars, the new record.
I admit I liked about half of the record on the first listen, but after a week-plus of intensive listening before the California swing, I can say it's closer to 75 percent now. I'm not sure I can fully get into a couple of songs, but the days are still young. Also, how cool is it that they released the record for free, no strings attached, and pulled a Beyonce in terms of an instant, secret drop? Remember when Radiohead's pay-what-you-want release was revolutionary?
I'm old and crotchety, so I have a long list of pet peeves. Among them is the album-in-its-entirety/anniversary performance ploy. But of course, this is not an anniversary (of a record), and Wilco's plan to play a brand-new album in order is the exact opposite of the nostalgia angle. There's nowhere to hide for either the band or the audience.
For me, the album's closing sequence is everything. The "Cold Slope"/"King of You" handoff is sublime, and "Magnetized" is one of the growers. Why hadn't I heard the Beatles thing in "Magnetized" before Daniel (who assuredly isn't reading this) pointed it out? Maybe because I was so taken by the '70-style dirty guitar tracks?
In the live setting, "Cold Slope"/"King of You" starts out unassumingly but eventually works up to a delicious clang of guitar and bass, allowing a pause only long enough to make you realize how badly you want more. I predict I'll want to listen to that sequence for a long time, though knowing Wilco, they'll find a way to mix it up with other tracks from the discography.
Can a band with no actual radio hits go into hits mode? Not exactly, but Wilco has clear audience favorites, which comprised much of the rest of the set. I don't know if a show with the alternate version of "Kamera," or the rambling "Art of Almost" can be considered everyday playlists, but in Wilco world, where we typically listen to albums and not isolated tracks, they can be more routine than you'd expect. Then again, I'm not sure that any Wilco track comes as a surprise these days if you follow the gig reports, now that they've thrown the song list wide open.
If you didn't make the anniversary shows or the recent Solid Sound (which probably applies to most West Coast fans), the hootenanny/acoustic portion of the gig was probably the biggest treat, even if the segment might've been abbreviated for the curfew. Overall, I loved the mix of songs. I like to think that "Misunderstood" went to our friend in Los Feliz, both "It's Just That Simple" and "We've Been Had" took a ton of people by surprise, and you kinda have to do "California Stars" when you're playing underneath -- and in front of -- California stars.
Speaking of California stars, we once again spotted Jon Hamm in the audience, but now that I was finally not paralyzed and starstruck, the opportunity to accost him slipped away. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before I can repeat all my favorite 30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt lines back at him!
The Greek Theatre has set a high bar for Wilco shows, especially with nods to family and loved ones. In comparison, this one was solid, though perhaps not as indelible as earlier appearances. Still, I'll come back here any time Wilco wants to set a date, Dr. Drew Baird/Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne lines at the ready.
Vetiver opened the show and were almost lost in the LA ennui -- but hey, the same happened to the Roots. I was rooting for them, but even with the full band, their sound couldn't fill the space. It probably didn't help that they saved the rockers until the end, but let's be clear that the empty seats couldn't be easy to play to.
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