Outsidelands, the first-ever music festival in Golden Gate park, recently featured some of this decade's best acts, including Andrew Bird and Broken Social Scene. My real anticipation, however, was for Wilco. The band hit the stage to Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew’s affirmation: “here’s the best band in America.” But apparently the dude sitting in front of me had a few too many PBRs, and immediately began laying into them. “I get it, they play rock music. They’ve just got no edge,” he slurred to no one in particular.
I thought, man, fuck that guy, I’m not going let him ruin my good time. And he couldn’t. Not when Wilco played “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” into “Jesus Etc.” into “Impossible Germany” into “Via Chicago”—I couldn’t have picked them better myself. But I was still curious why Wilco had become such an easy band to dismiss.
I have a long history with America’s greatest rock band. I was introduced to Wilco via Rolling Stone’s review of Summerteeth, somewhere around the tender age of fifteen. I remember the whole saga around Yankee Hotel Foxtrot happening, and then having that album be one of the very few that has ever lived up to my unfairly huge expectations. My band covered “War on War” at an assembly at our high school. I put “Jesus Etc.” on every mixtape I made for at least two years. I took my dad to see Sam Jones' documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart on my birthday at the only theater in the city that was showing it. And I even saw them on that tour, supported by Sonic Youth on the waterfront in Philadelphia.
(That concert was memorable, but not exactly for the best reasons. Before Jim O’Rourke stole the show, playing with both bands, my friend had decided to take an unannounced detour to North Philadelphia to buy some heroin. Turns out that not only was he using, but he was also the Main Line rich kids’ pipeline to Philly’s toughest hood. He’d be in rehab not too much later.)
On the brighter side, I caught Wilco at the Newport Folk Festival, with a special unannounced guest appearance by The Band’s Garth Hudson. I don’t remember too much else from that day other than sailboats, sunburns and Rufus Wainwright’s dramatics, but I’ll never forget that grizzled old man grinning from behind a Hammond B-3, nodding to Jeff Tweedy between songs.
But that wasn’t even the best time I’ve seen them. When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, they were lined up to play Hill Auditorium (the University’s super nice, acoustically-perfect concert hall). When my new best friend and across the hall neighbor asked me if I wanted to go with him, I told him I’d already bought tickets. So he pulls out his cell phone and guess what, he used to play in a band with lead guitarist Nels Cline. Before I had time to process what was happening, he was off the phone telling me that Nels was going to leave us front row tickets and back stage passes. I won’t even try to use words to do justice to that experience.
Later that year my editor at the Michigan Daily asked me at the last minute if I’d like to go cover Farm Aid. One glance at the headliners had me cringing (Dave Matthews and John Mayer, no thanks) but Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Wilco were enough reason to drop my plans for the weekend. And who was there to introduce Chicago’s finest? None other than Illinois Junior Senator Barack Obama.
Then I saw them again the following year, up at Michigan State in East Lansing. That one wasn’t terribly notable, although I did go with everyone’s favorite writer, Andrew Klein, towards the beginning of his own passionate love affair with the band and our own friendship. The following summer brought Sky Blue Sky, the band's perfect summer porch ‘n beer album.
Around that time and since then, I’ve heard many accusations of Wilco being “Dad-rock,” or “too NPR.” The claim may not seem terribly insulting, but I find appalling. Really? To me Wilco was the best band in America, if not the world, and I couldn’t understand the hating.
Which brings me to a couple days ago, in San Francisco. Word got out pretty fast that there was a hill near one of the stages that provided a better view than most of the $85 tickets got you inside, and before you could say “road bike” some friends and I were there. We got a nice free afternoon of good music, with everyone laying out in the sun, sharing beer and that other substance you find a lot of in California.
When the drunk Wilco hater started ragging on the band, I realized why everyone doesn’t love Wilco as much as I do. They’re a band you have to give yourself to if you want to get anything back. For every stunning Nels Cline guitar solo there’s twenty difficult lyrics by Jeff Tweedy, filled with emotions that are messy and muddled. This is not a band you could look at and see “cool,” and therefore they’re easy to write off for the jaded.
Are they too old? That’s not it, they’re just stuck between the mainstream and the skinny jeans crowd, not popular enough for one and not hip enough for the other. Some day Wilco will be canonized as what they truly are, a salt of the earth Rolling Stones of our generation, and one of the best damn bands of their time.
This article speaks to me. I'm a fan of Summerteeth and on Wilco, and a lot of times when I tell people they look at me like I just applied for a job at Barnes & Noble. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born are fantastic albums, and totally don't deserve the unfair "dad rock" title. I could see that for Sky Blue Sky though, which was really underwhelming.
That Wilco show at Hill remains the in the top ten concerts I've ever seen and I didn't even go backstage. I still remember how they opened with "Poor Places" and then went right into "Reservations" - perfect. I was also at that MSU show, which was notable because Tweedy came out of his shell in the second half and led what could have only been described as a tent revival for all of the apathetic hipsters in the front row. Great band.