Though the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood is nowhere near the city. Nestled in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts, the small open-air amphitheater features a huge lawn where friends could play Frisbee, families could picnic, and couples could cuddle while the music washed over the field. A picturesque setting that fit the music perfectly.
First up: indie-violinist Andrew Bird. Combining orchestral swirls with noisy feedback, his poppy tunes went over well as he switched from violin to guitar and back, often all in one song. Though you might expect the violin to be the most unusual element of his performance style, Bird one-ups himself by soloing on…whistling. He bills himself as a “professional whistler” and his tone is so pure and expressive you believe it. Though violin and whistling could come off as novelty, he incorporates both so fully into his music that they become essential ingredients to his strange tales. Several oversized phonographs behind him broadcasted the tunes, spinning occasionally for a weird reverb effect and lending the stage the vintage-chic atmosphere his music demands.
Wilco came out dressed for the occasion, looking dapper in lounge-cowboy suits. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman: “We were up all night sewing. As usual.” Though show started out quiet, the band was tight and focused, much higher energy than the laid-back show I saw at Bonnaroo. “Either Way” kicked things off, Tweedy’s voice strong while the band jammed in the background, leading into a “Hummingbird” sing-along. Kicking of a show with four slow songs is not something many bands could pull off, but the pretty melodies and together-but-loose background instrumentation kept the crowd focused until halfway through “You Are My Face” when a Nels Cline guitar solo finally kicked things up a notch. The band’s secret weapon, Cline’s guitar alone would have made the show enjoyable. Whether playing chiming intros (“Summer Teeth”), blazing-hot solos (“Impossible Germany”), offbeat distortion freakouts (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), and beautiful steel guitar (“Remember the Mountain Bed”) in turns.
Though never known for their fast songs, Wilco brought out their hardest rocking side, keeping a crowd accustomed to sitting for the orchestra on its feet the whole two hours. Though they performed six songs from Sky Blue Sky, the band’s most recent, most country album, they pushed the energy level up on them all to avoid the snoozefest they generate on record. The night’s clear high point, “Poor Places” into “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was twenty minutes of building distortion-jam bliss, the band controlling the dynamics and mood like a seasoned conductor as Cline and Tweedy traded blistering atonal solos.
Helping with the overall energy were the Total Pros, a three-man horn section from Chicago that pumped up the funk on songs like “Hate It Here” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Though only around for several songs in the main set, they dominated the encores until Tweedy finally let it all out on “I’m a Wheel” with his best nasal scream. After a highly-regarded series of shows in Chicago last winter where the band went through their entire back catalogue over five nights, Tweedy retained his interest in revisiting his earlier work, every album being represented in the set list except A.M. Not just a grab bag though, the songs were chosen for pacing and style, hits mixed in with long-forgotten nuggets with seamless transitions.
Known for being someone of a recluse with a history of depression and painkiller addiction, Tweedy played the master of ceremonies with confidence and charisma. No matter how self-deprecating he may be about his status as frontman, he’s an excellent one, cracking jokes and delivering the line of the night in response to a heckler: “Do you guys shout requests at the BSO? [In drunk fan voice:] Mahler! Maaahler!”
Though their records are a mixed bag, the excellent (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) alternating with the boring (Sky Blue Sky), as a live band Wilco gives a gimmick-less performance, not needing to rely on fancy lights of visuals like Radiohead to keep the crowd engaged throughout. Seeing people get as much out of the songs they didn’t know as the ones they did is unusual, but even the most staid classical subscriber walked out a convert.
Remember The Mountain Bed
Muzzle Of Bees
You Are My Face
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
A Shot In The Arm
What Light (w/Total Pros horns)
California Stars (w/Total Pros horns)
Pieholden Suite (w/Total Pros horns)
Pot Kettle Black
Can't Stand It (w/Total Pros horns)
Hate It Here (w/Total Pros horns)
Walken (w/Total Pros horns)
I’m The Man Who Loves You (w/Total Pros horns)
The Late Greats (w/Total Pros horns)
Heavy Metal Drummer
Monday (w/Total Pros horns)
Outtasite (Outta Mind) (w/Total Pros horns)
I'm A Wheel