When Wilco Came To See Us On The 3rd Of July
There’s an airline plane
Flies to heaven everyday
Past the pearly gates
If you want to ride this train
Have your ticket in your hand
Before it’s too late
I turned 50 this past February, which would mean that I would have 40-some 4th of Julys to draw memories from, unless I was some infant prodigy blessed/cursed with the ability to remember every moment of my existence (which I’m not). Granted, there are highlights from past 4ths that have stuck: Remember the year that we or That reminds me of the 4th when but, truth be known, I’d be hard-pressed to tag any of those memories with a specific year.
Except 2000. I don’t expect I’ll ever forget that particular 4th although it was actually the 3rd of July that’s the real memory-maker.
For that was when Wilco came to play their insides out for us in a little hall on the coast of Maine. And we rode that train.
In July of 2000, to know that Wilco would be playing the Camden Opera House in the village of Camden, Maine either meant something big time to you or it didn’t. Wow Wilco? In Camden? On the night before the 4th of July
Must be. Proof-reading the posters several times brought nothing to light: it was truly Wilco not a local cover band named Woolco or Wildo. Back then, the band wasn’t well-known enough to have generated a legion of cover bands (at least in our state) Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, or KISS maybe, but not Wilco. Somehow, local promoter Joel Raymond had brought the real thing to town.
At that point in time, I was a single dad, trying to expose my kids to a mix of the mainstream things that should be automatic when you’re a kid on the coast of Maine (bikes, boats, sunsets, starry skies) and things not-so-mainstream (homemade pesto and guacamole, life without a television and, yes, Wilco). My 16-year-old daughter Jessica Bonnie Raitt-like red hair, green eyes, and perpetual smile was already quite a guitar picker, eating up every note of music she listened to and absorbing everything. Younger sister Cassie was 10-1/2 in July of 2000; game for anything (and trusting that Dad would never let anything bad happen), Cassie was a pretty good sport about putting up with things when she was with me.
Both of the girls had listened to their share of Wilco’s music when they were with me. Small venue; some familiar tunes; and if we could get in early and get some good seats why not? The tickets were purchased; plans were made Id pick up Cassie at her moms while Jess would be driving from another direction during the day on the 3rd; wed rendezvous at my house and head in to Camden early.
Remember: it’s easier to stand in line an hour early to get a good seat than it is to sit in a crappy seat for 3 hours at a show, I offered, as we walked hand-in-hand from our vehicle to the Opera House. Looks like they’ve got the same idea, Jess said, pointing to a line of maybe 30 people waiting for the doors to open.
Don’t worry about a thing, I said, handing each of the girls their own ticket. Well nail some good seats. Just remember: stick close to me when the line starts moving. And they did. Here we go, whispered Cassie a little nervously. She squeezed my hand as we entered the doorway.
I don’t know what the official seat count is for the Camden Opera House, but I believe that 500 people would be pretty cozy if they were tucked into the main floor and single balcony.
The people that had been in front of us for the general admission seating had already taken the front rows on the floor; we might’ve gotten within three rows of the stage, but when you’re a kid, that might just as well have been 100 rows if the adults in front of you stood up. My Dad-vision assessed the situation quickly: Head for the balcony quick!
We scored a berth right on the balcony railing at about 5 o’clock to the stage. Completely unobstructed view; we could rest our elbows on the massive hardwood railing if we wanted to. The kids proceeded to people-watch as the crowd piled into the hall.
When it came time, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare: the lights went down, the PA music died out, the announcer grabbed a mic and said, Ladies and gentlemen, Wilco! On they came: multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach looking like everyman he could’ve walked across Main Street in front of us while we were standing in line outside and he would’ve just looked like a well normal guy; shy-grinning John Stirratt in a wrinkled dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up; Ken Coomer in a pale-yellow Western-style shirt screeched right up to the top button, tucking himself into his cockpit behind the drums. And then there was Jeff Tweedy head down, slight nod to the crowd short-cropped hair looking like he’d just had a go at it with a pair of scissors back stage; well-worn faded grey t-shirt with what looked like a 45 single graphic on the front and leather pants? Yes, but no time for that now; Tweedy was already strumming his faithful old Gibson J-45, laying down the back porch rhythm to Airline To Heaven.
And then there was Jay Bennett. Remember this was old-school Wilco: none of the Nels Cline art-rock-I-am-being-electrocuted-by-this-neat-vintage-Fender-Jazzmaster or Pat Sansones Telecaster-slinger poses. This was the Jay Bennett era with all its weirdness: baby face usually well-hidden by three-day stubble, oversize hornrims, and tumbling dirty-blonde dreadlocks; potential bad-craziness stage outfit of out-of-the-hamper sundress accented with a string of pearls, badly-smeared lipstick, and topped with a dented tiara. But, oh – that man could play. On this evening, Jay Bennett lurched out of the shadows looking like a mad scientist in a long white lab coat, lashing at the neck of a fat acoustic Guild 12-string with a bottleneck slide. Cassie laughed out loud (just a wee bit nervously after all, this was not the Shrine circus and that was not Smiley the Clown on stage) and Jess elbowed me. Off we went.
One of the songs from the Mermaid Avenue sessions (long-lost Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Wilco and project collaborator Billy Bragg), Airline hit the ground running with upbeat passion. Ken Coomer chucked his way along like a sidewalk drummer on his snare and high-hat through the first verse – then he and John Stirratt kicked in the low-end thump when Tweedy finished the chorus. Leroy Bach twanged the tunes signature riff on an electric steadily as Bennett’s acoustic slide work got wilder; Tweedy never strayed from the mic, never showed any emotion even when the song exploded in all its gospel-tent foot-stomping glory after the last verse.
The song crashed to a halt; the crowd was on their feet: It’s the 3rd of July and we’re sitting in Camden, Maine watching Wilco this is frigging Wilco! The girls were caught up in it, too. It was probably the loudest bunch of adults Cassied been exposed to in her 10-1/2 years and it was all because of this funny mix of men on the stage. With a quick glance at me (as if to say, This is okay, right, Daddy?), Cass joined in the applause. Jess was already hooting she wanted to be on stage with them; no doubt about it.
The applause faded as the crowd realized that Jeff Tweedy was already plowing ahead into Feed Of Man. Another of a string of Mermaid Avenue songs that dominated the first half of the night, Feed Of Man started off with a stripped-down Shake Your Hips-style rhythm, building into a full-blown raver punctuated with scary organ swells. Tweedy held down the vocal like a monotone pale-white John Lee Hooker. Groove spent, the band hit the wall, leaving Jay Bennett’s big red Gibson 335 squealing feedback mournfully.
While immersed in the sessions that produced the two Mermaid Avenue albums, Jeff Tweedy said he wasn’t into Woody the icon. I’m into Woody the freak weirdo. The next song didn’t capture that spirit at all: California Stars was beautiful on the album, and it was soothing and calming that night in the Opera House. The band played it straight, letting the song build verse by verse until everyone with a mic was singing and a good chunk of those without, as well.
The mental ointment of Stars received the biggest applause of the night up to that point but Tweedy was oblivious to it, as if he needed to let the freak weirdo Woody out as soon as possible. He tore into Christ For President like it was something that needed to be done- right now. If Airline To Heaven bordered on being a gospel stomper, Christ For President was a cartoon the freak was definitely loose. Jay Bennett dug hard into his Gibson, from crazy-paced chicken picking over the songs rollicking rhythm to bluesy flurries as things chugged into a Midnight Rambler sort of tear. He didn’t look like a guitar god that night, but he sure played like one.
Again, as the band lurched to a smoking finish, the crowd had a choice: show their appreciation for the music or cut their applause short to hear the beginning of the next song. Tweedy ushered the hall into a darker Woody place with Blood Of A Lamb, a ghostly waltz with phantom organ chords the girls were quiet in their seats. And if there hadn’t been enough Mermaid Avenue for anyone up to that point, Tweedy pushed the band into one more Woody lyric: Remember The Mountain Bed. The mood swung from spooky to sweet/sad. Not to worry, though things were about to change.
The acoustic Gibson was handed off for a wipe down and a retune and Tweedy strapped on a seafoam Telecaster. (Dad Tele! Jess had pointed as he reached for it; by Christmas of that year, shed have her own.) Woody’s ghost left the stage to make room for Tweedy’s own personal freak weirdo.
From Being There came ‘Red-Eyed and Blue’, with Leroy Bach hammering out some fine barroom piano and Tweedy attempting the whistled verse from the album version all business, even though he had a hard time getting it out there and then wham! I Got You and its all I need! – Wilco suddenly became a cranked-out garage band and the Opera House was rocking.
And then came the moment; the moment that explained the leather pants and let us all in on the fact that maybe Jeff Tweedy’s head wasn’t completely full of snakes that night maybe. Chunking along on the main riff of I Got You, Tweedy and Jay Bennett suddenly did patented-rock-star scissor kicks in perfect unison no looks or grins exchanged; just one little outburst of Were not that serious about all of this and then they churned on. One fake ending; crowd begins to applaud as Jay Bennett’s guitar starts to feedback, then slams back into one more romp through the songs theme, then are we done? still some feedback squeals and Tweedy’s not leaving the mic suddenly he belts out: I CAN’T TELL YOU Cassie started in her seat; I instinctively gave her a quick hug.
Someone Else’s Song was a sweet and plaintive little acoustic song on Being There tonight it’s a snarling, staggering wall of guitars, crashing drums, and Little Help From My Friends (Cocker/Woodstock version) keyboards. You expected smoke and flames to erupt from the grills of the old vintage amps at any second. The guitars dropped out on the last verse, leaving Tweedy’s vocal against the majestic crackling organ no fiddle or mandolins here; just raw emotion and fuses on the verge of blowing out of their holders.
The last smoldering notes of Song were fading when Leroy Bach began a swirling, haunting keyboard line an unfamiliar song to all of us that night.
The cash machine is blue and green …
14 months later, some would claim Ashes Of American Flags to be eerily prophetic in the wake of the September 11 attack, the songs siren-like keyboard line sounding like an emergency vehicle. But tonight this was a song of just one man’s pain. We held our breaths as the band faded away, leaving Ken Coomer thumping a slow heartbeat behind Tweedy wrenching slow Hendrix-like backwards-effect cries out of his Tele.