Wilco, Shepherds Bush Empire, London, UK- 5/20
My partner and I found ourselves with an extra ticket to Wilco at the last minute before this long sold-out gig. While trying to dodge the aggressive London ticket scalpers (or “touts” as they call them here) charging exorbitant prices, we searched for a genuine fan to sell our ticket to at face value, but it was all in vain as everyone either had a ticket or looked at us as if to say, “Who the hell is Wilco?” Asking random folk assembled at an ATM a block down from the venue, we got the same blank expressions. Except for a pimply-faced kid in a football (soccer) jersey turned around and snapped: “Jeff Tweedy is a self-indulgent pretentious twat!”
Wilco is a band that inspires strong emotions. Their fans are very devoted, with a sacred-cow approach to their band, while their detractors are equally devoted to bringing down the idol. There are only a few bands I have lost my heart to, and Wilco is not one of them yet, but I am a convert. I think Jeff Tweedy is one of the best lyricists in rock at the moment, up there with Ryan Adams and Craig Finn from the Hold Steady. His ability to shatter a poetic illusion with a heartbreakingly honest statement gets me every time. Having explored them on record, I was happy to discover that the gospel of Wilco translates fantastic live (despite the stage at Shepherd’s Bush being a bit too low for those of us who are on the short side to see properly).
There was a real sense of clarity and joy in Wilco’s performance, as they slipped between alt-country twang and the sweeping sonic distortion that is their signature sound. Songs off of new album Sky Blue Sky slipped in comfortably amongst classics such as “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and “Handshake Drugs.” The latter had a funky swagger that kicked into some heavy feedback. “Impossible Germany” had a bright guitar solo that built to include the full-force of the band. It sounded gorgeous live and was the perfect lead in to the electric slide and shiver of “Jesus, Etc.” Those two songs were particular highlights. “Shot in the Arm” was a proper rock anthem, which had the audience pumping fists as Tweedy’s cracking voice yelled the chorus over Glenn Kotche’s aggressive drumming. Detractors have often muttered terms like “depressing” and “solemn” when describing Wilco’s music (which makes me question if they have ever actually listened to any of it). I don’t think this could be further from the truth, certainly not in the band’s current incarnation.
Shepherd’s Bush Empire, built in 1903, seen two World Wars and a take-over by the Academy Group (who are slowly buying every interesting music venue in London), has a certain shabby charm that can only come from being a survivor. It was an appropriate setting to see a band like Wilco. Sky Blue Sky’s title tracks has particularly telling lyrics: “If I didn’t die/I should be satisfied/I survived/That’s good enough for now”. As a record it is full of hope and acceptance, with only these faintest twinges of regret. In the energy of live performance this was turned into cathartic, celebratory release. Jeff Tweedy’s darker days are famously behind him. To a fan that jokingly yelled out for “Freebird,” he responded by suggesting “a rock penalty box” with a big smile on his face.