Under an almost full moon, among the lush, bosomy trees of Meadow Brook Amphitheatre, the only thing missing was the soft twilight of a campfire for Jeff Tweedy to sing his songs of heartbreak and sad longing around. After burning through such Wilco classics as "Ashes of an American Flag," "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," and "War on War," Tweedy himself sang the praises of this night — "a beautiful night for morbidly painful songs" — which sounds just about right. If nothing else, after 23 years at the helm of Wilco, more than a hundred Wilco songs in, Jeff Tweedy knows oh too well both the nature of his own schtick.
An hour into the show, the nearly full moon was transformed into a child's giant yo-yo that seemed to be, rising in the sky behind us, connected to Nels Cline's Fender Jazzmaster as he ripped his way through “Impossible Germany.” I've seen Wilco half a dozen times over the years, pre and post Nels, and have always found great pleasure in watching the gangly Cline, like an oversized marionette, a guitarist born out of the Los Angeles paisley rock scene of the early '80s — land of such bands as the Dream Syndicate, Opal and the Rain Parade — run and flail his fingers over Tweedy's tamer, more conventional, straight-forward songs that are born from the more pastoral landscapes of the American Midwest.
That's what I've long admired about Wilco, the band: what sets them apart from other post-punk era bands that are influenced in equal parts by Neil Young and Television is a willingness on the part of the band and an openness on the part of Tweedy himself to take a song (in its simplest form) and play and mess around with it, to let it become something more-than, other-than, what it first looked and sounded like when Tweedy first strummed it into being.
Tonight's pre-encore, 100 minute set included a loose/rough version of the soulful, sludge pop song "Theologians," after which Tweedy chimed in that "This is the first night of our tour. We haven't played in a while," which could be taken as a kind of apology. But most listeners (50-somethings on the verge of early hearing loss?) hardly noticed as the band then kicked into the sublime "Hummingbird" — "His goal in life was to be an echo" — followed by "Late Greats" that makes the claim, in a kind of meta moment, that "The best song will never get sung."
It's true, the best songs can often deliver us to a wordless place, a silent space. What's also true is that Wilco's new songs, off the tongue-in-cheek titled "Wilco Schmilco" record, don't have the reach of Wilco songs at their best, among those "Jesus Etc.", "Handshake Drugs" (which they did not play tonight) or the quietly tender love song that is "Reservations."
Even though longtime, hardcore fans might have their own reservations about the last few Wilco records, there's something endearing and enduring about this band that has Jeff Tweedy as its scruffy but kindly frontman, a singer who offers listeners such personal insights as this: "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. So be kind. I'm not the first to say this. I think Plato said it. You'd think we'd have it figured out by now."
Yes, you'd think. But the truth is, around the campfire these days, the stories are getting darker and darker — I think Tweedy would agree with this — and at times the moon itself, not to mention the sky blue sky, offers up little light.