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Wilco reaches new level of aplomb

Mississippi Nights, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1997

By Bill Sacks

ST. LOUIS - Questions of stylistic proclivity aside, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy has become a very fine songwriter, capable of producing anything from a whisper of desire to a harrowing dirge.

He has also taken to bearing the weight of his influences in deliberately graceless ways, and this has led in turn to an unsteady (which is not to say ambivalent) attitude toward his audience's expectations.

In recent months, he has made disparaging comments in the music press about the prospects of both the "alternative country" explosion which his former band Uncle Tupelo has been widely credited with sparking (Wilco's rhythm section, drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stirratt, were also members of that band's final incarnation) and the punk rock he began his musical career by covering while in high school.

Yet it's not likely to surprise those who hold Tweedy in high regard that both strains of influence were readily apparent during this past weekend's two performances at Mississippi Nights, intermingled in new arrangements of songs from both of the band's albums, the debut, "A.M." and last fall's double CD, "Being There."

What remains puzzling is the way Tweedy insists on rebuking his audience's interests in his varied roots, all the while taking obvious delight in being able to twist them at will during Wilco's live performances and, thereby, to move us.

Take, for example, the way both evenings were punctuated by howling, rage-filled renditions of "Misunderstood": the song is, at bottom, an elegy for misplaced intentions and unfulfilled hopes which climaxes with Tweedy shouting out that he'd like to "thank you all for nothin' at all."

This would seem, on its face, to suggest a pervasive disgust, and while that's certainly an honest emotion it also countermands the breadth of the band's substantial ambitions. One moment Tweedy is seething with negativity; later, in one of the evening's most roots-inflected songs he asks, "Was I in your dreams/late last night?" He wants to tell us off and infiltrate our deepest sleep, to have it both ways in a sidelong collision of nihilism and romance. And to think that all of this contradiction was built on a foundation of music as intricate as it was powerful.

That pronounced beauty didn't just spring fully formed into the world- as recently as a year ago, Wilco had a reputation for succumbing to clumsiness on stage, losing the buoyancy of its country and folk influences in a 4/4 muddle.

No more: through much careful distillation of the legacies of the Buffalo Springfield and Woody Guthrie, Gram Parsons and Big Star, they have managed to remake several vital strains of American music into a singular force, alternately capable of expressing ferocity and compassion.

But Tweedy is not easy with that process or its product; he confronted his own musical past with a wry rendition of "Someone Else's Song," a beleaguered expression of impatience with those who would speak to Wilco's most apparent borrowings and reinventions (for instance, the theme of the song in question is lifted wholesale from Neil Young's "Borrowed Tune," an irony not lost).

It's almost as if, in the expectation that his music won't measure up to that of his forebearers, Tweedy wants to swear off ever arriving at the destination his music's considerable momentum might carry him to.

He should know better than to expect that kind of quarter from an audience hungry for quality and depth, and he should show his band the benefit of some greater faith, too, because few other songwriters of his generation have such talent at their disposal (his former partner, Jay Farrar, is one other).

The group moved from the well-weathered lines of "Forget The Flowers" to the fragile melancholy of "The Lonely One" to a revamped version of "Passenger Side" which was nothing less than an out-and-out tribute to hardcore punk rock.

Regardless of the mode in which they played, Jay Bennett continually turned out lyrical lead guitar phrases which made perfect sense; Coomer displayed a lighter touch than I've ever heard from him before, and as a result his dynamic range seemed to have grown proportionally; and Bob Egan, the most recent addition to the band who is thrice gifted on dobro, lap and pedal steel, was a revelation of versatile virtuosity - fans of Sneeky Pete Kleinow and Ben Keith will hear echoes of their respective sounds ring from Egan's tone bar in equal measure.

Midway through the second evening, Jeff Tweedy made a point of telling the St. Louis audience how much fun he was having, and how different that felt in contrast to the anxiety he used to bring home with him during Uncle Tupelo's heyday.

There was no mistaking, as Wilco repeatedly brought the room to its feet with rollicking versions of "Monday," "The Long Cut" and "Dreamer In My Dreams," that the feeling was widely shared.

Those of us who were caught off-guard by the new level of aplomb they brought to their live show can only hope that Tweedy will carry the some measure of satisfaction away from these evenings, and know that whatever further indecision he may feel need not be expressed with precautionary cynicism. -Bill Sacks

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