Sonic Youth and Wilco
Oakdale Theater, Wallingford, CT • June 24, 2003
A tour with Sonic Youth and Wilco co-headlining… not a bad idea; in fact a very good idea. After all, these two bands are not as disparate as one might think. Sure their respective medium, while pop-based, is unique to each band, but both have come to understand the fine line between art and commerce all too well (witness the latter’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel or 1990’s Goo from the former). And for both Wilco and Sonic Youth, artistic vision inevitably prevails. Sadly, this is something that can be said about few other bands.
As I approached the entrance of the Oakdale Theater on the sultry night of the 24th, my eyes were drawn to the black and white 8.5″ X 11″ sheets of paper that hung from each glass door. “Due to illness, Sonic Youth will not be performing tonight.” I was confounded. Do I redeem my ticket (which I didn’t pay for to begin with) for a refund? Or, do I go in anyway and make the best of an unfortunate situation? I saw Wilco several years back (during the first Mermaid Avenue tour) and they put on a pretty good show, so I decided to make the best of it.
In Sonic Youth’s place was a droll “local” rock (I guess) band that goes by the name Rane. At the outset of their performance, the singer promised “some original music.” Well, I guess what ensued indeed may have been “original,” in that each song was from Rane’s own repertoire. However, beyond writing their own songs, this band is no different than any other “jam” band, ala Dave Matthews Band, Phish and the like. Yeah, taking the place of Sonic Youth would prove to be a ponderous feat for nearly any band, but the decision to allow Rane to accept such a challenge is utterly baffling. The dismay of Sonic Youth fans was apparent as calls for the truant band pierced each moment of silence in Rane’s set. Even a few of the band members on stage looked bored as their uninspired brand of rock oozed from the sound system. I eventually tuned them out and joined my wife in trying to name the nine planets in our solar system. I am convinced there are only eight; didn’t Pluto explode? I digress…
So it turns out that that couple sitting next to us were the parents of a band member — for the entire set, I was wondering why the hell these people were so into this band. After Rane’s set, an overly proud mother approached me and asked, “So, what did you think? They’re pretty good, don’t ya think?” Interestingly, it seemed that even she was not convinced that what she just witnessed was worthy of accolades. But motherhood necessitates unconditional love and support. What was I supposed to do, tell her that her son makes some of the most insipid music I’ve heard in some time — Phish was bad enough the first time around– thus only confirming her doubts about her son’s future as an “musician?” Instead, I momentarily suppressed my cynicism and nodded in agreement, all the while wondering if she saw through my insincerity.
Admittedly, I have always been somewhat conflicted about Wilco. As we all know, singer Jeff Tweedy and a few other members of his band come from the band that established the precedent for what is now widely known as “alt.country.” I love Uncle Tupelo. Their No Depression and Anodyne albums are perhaps two of the best records of the Nineties. But when Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy decided to call it a day and pursue life after Uncle Tupelo, I preferred the endeavors of the former. Yeah, AM was alright, but Being There began to feel a bit too poppy, and only foreboded the pop train wreck of Summer Teeth. The man who helped make two of the best albums of the decade had somehow also managed to make one of the worst. While Farrar’s music (with Son Volt and on his own) continued to evoke the rustic, blue-collar simplicity and beauty that has come to generically denote “Americana,” Tweedy seemed almost obsessed with making music suffused with the artsy slickness of SoHo, more or less disavowing his Rust Belt roots (the Mermaid Avenue project notwithstanding). But then there was last year’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. This album, while bearing little immediate resemblance to Uncle Tupelo’s oeuvre, proved to be Wilco’s redemption and undoubtedly one of the better albums of this decade. It is a challenging record of experimental twang with pop undertones, one that demands to be rendered live.
Unfortunately, Wilco’s performance at the Oakdale Theater belied my expectations. It was, in a word, quiet. While there were a few rollicking moments, like “I’m the Man Who Loves You” (on which Tweedy sported a flying-V) and “Heavy Metal Drummer,” most of the night’s set assumed a more languid feel. I still find the prescience of “Jesus Etc’s” lyrics (“Tall buildings shake / Voices escape singing sad sad songs / Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks”) to be utterly eerie. Performed live, this song was all the more poignant as it seemed Tweedy sang each words with new meaning and greater emphasis. “At Least That’s What You Said” is a new song that oozes with morose wryness. It is a good song, but the overall performance, however, lacked the experimentation that made Wilco every rock critic’s new darling band — a decade after they first recorded together, incidentally. The crisp piano-driven “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” momentarily wandered into the land of psychedelia, but for the most part the band avoided that which is nonlinear. A little angularity and a lot more energy surely would have prevented me from looking at my watch every two minutes, hoping that the next song would be the last. And then there’s the encore…
I have never really understood encores. Are they meant to make egotistical rock stars feel wanted? Or, are they merely an opportunity for the band to take a piss after imbibing several pints of beer during a set? Wilco not only played one, but two encores. Maybe the first was to take a piss and the second was to feel wanted. Regardless, these encores were the best part of the show. “One by One” was simply gorgeous and “California Stars,” albeit a somewhat bland version, was a instant crowd pleaser. It was about time they played something from Mermaid Avenue — in fact, two of my favorites from that particular project. Rockers like “We’ve Been Had” and “Casino Queen” inspired more than one middle-aged guy to go nuts with the air guitar. And “Outta Sight, Outta Mind” offered the perfect closure to Wilco’s two-hour performance.
Jeff Tweedy likened playing the Oakdale with playing in a hospital. “Paging Dr. Jones,” he joked. I am not really sure what he meant. Since it’s Connecticut, he probably wasn’t far off, as there were probably more doctors than not in attendance. Maybe the inhibition exuded by all the “doctors” in the theater accounts for Wilco’s lackluster performance. Or it may have been the result of the fact that the temperature was in the mid-90s, with a relative humidity of 70% that night, as the northeast suffered its first heat-wave of the summer. Either way, I left pretty disappointed. Maybe I should have redeemed my ticket; I would have been thirty bucks richer.
No, it wasn’t bad, but I’m sure it would have been a lot better had Sonic Youth not fallen ill.
Wilco: http://www.wilcoworld.net/ • Sonic Youth: http://www.sonicyouth.com/ • Rane: http://www.thesoundofrane.com/forward/ranetides.html