Head of Femur
Orlando, FL • 2/15/2005
How do you categorize a band that started playing Alternative Country a decade ago, became Indie Rock superstars, and just days ago won their first Grammy award for “Best Alternative Rock Album?” Wilco don’t fit into any one category, and it’s this schizophrenic genre-jumping that acts as both a blessing and a curse. Twangy country songs follow experimental electronic-infused folk songs, which may be then be followed by a melodic indie rock number. You may love one song, and hate the next. Such is the complexity of the band that will play the famous Coachella Festival this year, next to Nine Inch Nails and Weezer.
A sold-out crowd piles into the House of Blues on a Tuesday night, a crowd whose majority is made up of twenty-something indie kids, and middle-aged men. One man has brought his young daughter to see her first show. I overhear this exchange, “When I was your age, my daddy took me into the garage so that I could watch him skin a rabbit. He never took me to anything cool, like a concert. What would you rather do, see Wilco or watch me skin a rabbit?” The girl chose Wilco.
The opening band, like the headliners, are from Chicago. Head of Femur began in 2001 as a sideproject for Mike Elsener (from Solarwind), Matt Focht (from Bright Eyes), and Ben Armstrong (from Commander Venus). A band begun in the same spirit as The Minus Five, whose members included R.E.M’s Peter Buck, Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey, and Posies’ Ken Stringfellow. Head of Femur quickly mutated into an octet of highly skilled musicians, all of whom are still currently involved with at least one other band. They’ve got every instrument from violin to glockenspiel represented! The problem with “supergroups” like this is that it so quickly turns into a “jam,” which — unless you’re a Phish fan — can be tiresome.
Singer/guitarist Matt Focht, handled most of the lead vocals with a voice that sounded like a folky Robert Smith. Focht looks a bit like John Mayer, but dances about like Michael Stipe. One song, “Born in the ’70s,” worked really well for his style. The crowd seemed distracted for their set, often drifting off. It wasn’t until the band’s final number that I found my own interest perked. Focht handed off lead vocals to guitarist Mike Elsener and they shot into a surprisingly Devo-esque song. Suddenly this band had found its niche for harnessing the talents of all of its many members. They had summoned the spirit of The Beach Boys, the experimental urge of Roxy Music, and the off-kilter pop melodies of The Cars. Just when I was beginning to enjoy their multi-layered sound, they were gone.
After a whirlwind of roadies removed all of Femur’s equipment, the men of Wilco slowly walked onto the dark stage. Much press has been run about frontman Jeff Tweedy’s painkiller addiction, which caused him to check himself into a rehab clinic last year. Dressed all in black and looking a bit ragged, Tweedy wears his tortured soul on his face. It’s in his sneers, his lazy eyes, and in the folds of his skin. And when you hear the man sing, with a voice that can change the direction of the song mid-note, or hear the man’s confident (some may say, arrogant) way of scolding an audience (more on that later), it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the late Johnny Cash. Strapping on an acoustic guitar, this man in black leads the band into the opening song, “Handshake Drugs.”
The band has been around for a decade now following the breakup of Tweedy’s old band, Uncle Tupelo, and have five albums from which to draw material. They have chosen to focus on their more recent albums. The majority of the set was taking from 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the Grammy winning, A Ghost Is Born. “Here’s another song off our ‘Grammy Award winning’ album,” Jeff tells the crowd, who respond with congratulatory cheers. “…Never thought we’d see the day… Well, my Mom is proud.”
The music ebbed and flowed as they redirected their sound from the beautiful folk rock of “Jesus, etc,” to the catchy pop of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” to the fuzz and distortion of “Poor Places,” and into the roots of country twang of “California Stars.” One moment it feels like a Jimmy Buffett concert, and the next I’d swear it was Jon Spencer Blues Explosion onstage. It’s manic depression personified!
Wilco’s visit to Florida is a rare one, as Tweedy announced to the crowd, “We don’t get to Florida much, so let’s exchange pleasantries…” This leads me to estimate that most of the patrons in the venue this night are seeing the band for the first time. You’d think they’d have had the decency to shut up and listen to the band play. But instead there arose the incessant chatter of the short attention-spanned. Tweedy — in a simultaneously punk rock and whiney kid move — addressed the guilty, “ya know, we can hear you onstage… You’re only hurting the performance.” When the talkers still would not cease, he added “I mean, we’d like to come back to Florida again sometime…”Even with the band’s justified annoyance with the Orlando crowd, their performance pushed past the two hour mark with two extended encores. Whether this was to reward the well behaved, or suffer the chatty children, who’s to say. Either way, their performance never once faltered. And I’m sure that no one would argue that seeing Wilco is way better than seeing your Dad skin a rabbit.