American alternative rock band Wilco last played in Australia a few years back, touring for their Sky blue sky album. At the time I had decided to give the gig a miss, a decision which I regretted when some of my other gig mates went along and subsequently raved about their live performance. When I heard recently that not only were Wilco returning to Melbourne, but they were playing at The Forum (easily my favourite musical venue) it was an opportunity too good to pass up.
A few days before the gig my mate Mark informed fellow gig mate Matt and myself that there was going to be even better "bang for the buck" because Liam Finn was supporting Wilco. Regularly observant readers may remember that I named his 2007 debut album I'll be lightning as one of my favourite albums of the 2000s. Needless to say, I was very pleased when I heard that he would be playing support.
While Liam had quite a reputation for rocking out in his live performances, I don't think anyone was expecting the utterly surreal performance of his act that night. While I usually gloss over the support act in my gig reviews, his set almost overshadowed the night for me.
It deserves a review of its own.
Liam's set opened with a couple of songs from I'll be lightning -- the beautiful ballad Fire in your belly and Better to be. While the former was played in a fairly conventional acoustic fashion, for the latter he used a device which I hadn't seen before. He basically played the rhythm guitar part and then activated a machine to loop the same part continuously. This gave him the rhythmic foundation of the song (necessary since he was playing alone), allowing him to overlay the sound with lead guitar noodling and improvisation.
He had some strange mannerisms while playing guitar, sometimes closing his eyes like he was in pain or having a seizure. There was something a bit David Helfgott about it all.
After playing a couple more songs (On your side and Remember when), the set all got much weirder. He told the audience a story about a man (Connan Hosford) who he has met in New Zealand as a "wandering spirit". Connan had lived with Liam for a while, sleeping in his bed because "it was the only place he could" (although the impression was that their relationship was platonic). Then Liam invited Connan to come on the stage to perform in a few songs, and we were introduced to him as a sleight, youthful and fairly shy man with wavy blonde hair and an almost child-like demeanour.
Liam told the audience about how Connan and himself had co-written a song in tribute to actor Leonardo DiCaprio called Leo, and they performed this on stage. Liam sung the bizarre song with his normal voice, with Connan singing in a high falsetto, performing some strange vocal tricks by using his finger to vibrate his larynx. It was a bizarre display, with many audience members including me finding it all very amusing. When Connan finally did speak, he appeared to have a fairly normal voice.
Connan stayed on stage for the remainder of the set, providing the high backing vocals for the title track from I'll be lightning. Apparently Connan co-wrote the song with Liam and performed backing vocals on the studio version. It was interesting making the connection between the vocals on the studio version and this man on stage.
When he wasn't singing, Connan was dancing really awkwardly to the music. He appeared to be very nervous, but overall he came across as a bit of a Bez (of Happy Mondays fame). The set list ended with a cover of Devo's song Gut feeling, where Liam Finn went off with the help of a mini joystick-shaped theremin.
It was one of the most memorable supports acts I have ever seen; I wish all support acts were this interesting live. I would definitely see him live again if I had the chance.
Now who was I here to see again? That's right -- Wilco! Shortly after Liam left the stage, an announcement in a semi-computerised voice came over the PA system instructing fans not to take photos or video. Then Wilco took to the stage to the cheers of the already hyped-up crowd.
Wilco (the band) opened with Wilco (The song) from their most recent studio release Wilco (The album). Could there be an any more appropriate opening song? While the song is a bit of a throwaway, they managed to turn it into the perfect signature song to introduce all of the members of the band. They shone a spotlight on each band member in turn, stating their name; at the end it was all capped off with a single word: Wilco. It was an incredibly effective way to open the gig, showing that the band had a great sense of humour and showmanship.
The first half of the gig consisted mostly of songs from their last 4 studio albums, the albums where they moved away from their alt-country roots to embrace more alternative influences (although admittedly their last 2 albums were a return to a more conventional sound). Highlights of this part of the set included the beautiful Muzzle of bees, the dynamic At least that's what you said and the epic Handshake drugs (which worked much better in a live setting for me).
But the climax of the first half was undoubtedly the awesome Impossible Germany, where lead guitar virtuoso Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and the youthful looking Pat Sansone jammed like it was going out of fashion. It was an incredible display of interplay and duelling guitar, and it rawked the house down.
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]
The second half of the gig began when bassist John Stirratt took to the microphone to sing the beautiful country song It's just that simple from their debut A.M. While this is (as far as I know) the only song on any of their studio albums not sung by Jeff Tweedy, I wasn't aware that the singer of that song was still in the band. It was a surprise inclusion in the set list.
The majority of the second half of the gig consisted of material from their albums prior to their breakthrough Yankee hotel foxtrot, and music from this era had a much more of a country feel to it. Their performance of Via chicago from Summerteeth was nothing short of amazing, where the mellow verses suddenly disappeared in blasts of dissonance and feedback while Jeff Tweedy and the backing vocalists continued singing as if it was business as usual. It was a sight (and sound) to behold.
The beautiful ballad Jesus etc. provided a chance for the audience to participate, where Jeff Tweedy encouraged everyone to sing along. The crowd definitely did the song proud, singing most of lyrics correctly and rarely missing a beat. I was actually a little disappointed that I didn't get to hear Jeff sing more of the song; he only came in with his vocals in the last verse.
They finished their set with a duo of rockers from their 2nd (double) album Being there -- Monday and Outtasite (outta mind). When they returned to stage for an encore, they played a duo from their 2004 album A ghost is born -- The late greats and the live favourite rocker I'm a wheel, which concluded the gig on a very positive note.
They played for about 2 1/2 hours, and my overall impression of the band can be summed up by two words: class act. They are such consummate professionals who are masters at what they do, and they do nothing short of rocking your socks off when they play live. It was such a pleasure to see such professional musicians performing; they are true entertainers.
Jeff Tweedy is an incredibly charismatic frontman, coming across as a guy you would like to have a beer and a chat with. He engaged the audience throughout the gig, taking requests for songs, telling stories and joking around; but never forgetting that you were there to rock and/or roll.
There are so many pretenders out there, but Wilco perform like a classic 70s rock act, and are (together with My Morning Jacket) one of the best examples of bands I have seen who are able to capture the spirit of that bygone era.
I made a mistake of taking my camera out too early, during the Liam Finn set. A security guard tapped me on the shoulder and kindly told me that photography was not permitted. After that, I was too scared to bring the camera out again (figuring that since he had given me a warning, he had a valid reason to kick me out or confiscate my camera if he caught me again).
Since my friend Mark hadn't been warned, he was courageously able to take photos during the remainder of the gig (when the crowds were bigger and there was less chance of being caught). Thank you to Mark for all of the photos throughout the blog post. Here's a few more.