The Heartless Bastards
Cincinnati, Ohio • June 12, 2009
From the opening notes of the first concert on Wilco’s summer U.S. tour, it was clear the band was trying hard not to peak too early. They’ve got a long road ahead that will take them all over the U.S. and Europe this summer. But these guys are such pros that they couldn’t help but put on a great show for an appreciative Cincinnati crowd at the Aronoff Center.
With original members Jeff Tweedy (vocals, guitar) and John Stirratt (bass, backing vocals) leading the way, Wilco is a band firing on all cylinders these days. They are joined by experimental guitarist Nels Cline, crazy good drummer Glenn Kotche, inventive pianist/keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen, and energetic utility man Pat Sansone (guitar, keyboards, percussion, you name it).
With a new album two weeks away from release (but already previewed online), several new songs got a workout in the Queen City. The opening, self-referential “Wilco (The Song),” which the band debuted on The Colbert Report last year, is a likely candidate to become a mainstay anthem for the band. It’s a buzzy, concise, stop-start, goofy bit of fun. Indeed many of the band’s new songs are remarkable for their brevity. Even the darker, more experimental, three-guitar freakout “Bull Black Nova,” which bears a passing resemblance to A Ghost Is Born’s hypnotic Kraut-rock opus “Spiders (Kidsmoke), was fairly self-contained. The pretty and powerful “One Wing,” which sounds most like a Sky Blue Sky outtake, was short and sweet too while “Sonny Feeling” was perhaps a more conventional rocker than the band has been cranking out in recent years. Cline’s kazoo-like guitar solos added a fun element to the tune. He donned a double-necked Danelectro baritone for “You Never Know,” which sounds like it could be the closest thing the band has had to a hit single in a while.
If anything disappointed about the new songs, it was that they sounded almost too rehearsed and studio-perfect. Here’s hoping a summer on the road will allow these songs to get out and breathe a bit and acquire some spontaneity.
Even many of Wilco’s older tunes that stretch out a bit more were notably precise in their execution, though. Despite some burgeoning song lengths in their catalog, Wilco isn’t really what you’d call a jam band. Case in point: the songs from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky that the band sprinkled throughout the set that were highlights of the band’s previous tour. “You Are My Face” is as airy as a summer breeze but Cline’s guitar leads are perfectly sculpted. Stirratt’s pretty harmonies are an added bonus. On “Impossible Germany,” there is a point where the guitars lock in together like some otherworldly Allman Brothers Band tune before Cline takes off on another of his trademark, whiplash-inducing speed freakout solos. But it all serves the song and the crescendo of textures that this band has perfected.
Cline wasn’t the whole show though. On “A Shot in the Arm” from 1999’s Summerteeth, Jorgensen was slamming his keyboard with what appeared to be a pillow. On another song, Sansone contributed to the cacophony by dropping maracas and other percussion instruments onto his keyboard.
One of the evening’s biggest surprises was “At Least That’s What You Said,” which featured Jorgensen’s piano a bit more prominently and which seemed to have received a melody injection from its recorded version. It still had the pounding, pile driver breaks to it as well and Kotche demonstrated once again he’s one of the hardest working drummers around.
“Hummingbird” found Tweedy sans guitar and assuming various ironic rock star poses (the crowd ate it up, of course) and swinging the microphone with carefully choreographed joyful abandon.
The show featured other familiar pleasures as well. “Handshake Drugs” has clearly become a concert staple, band favorite, and crowd pleaser. Stirratt’s loping bass, Jorgensen’s piano, Tweedy’s laconic vocal, and Cline’s subtle colorations and guitar throttling sent it into the stratosphere.
Closing the main set was the aforementioned “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which was perhaps freakier, looser and even, yes, jammier than usual. It still prompted the audience to clap along. Tweedy let a guy in the front row strum his guitar as he formed the chords. The power chord breaks were brutal in the best way.
Encore favorites included a bright and anthemic “The Late Greats” and Sky Blue Sky’s soulful, somewhat Beatle-y ode to domesticity “Hate It Here.” Another Sky Blue Sky tune, “Walken,” which to these ears is one of the album’s few throwaways, nevertheless provided another excellent guitar showcase for the band. “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” from 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, began with Kotche standing atop his drum kit while the closer “I’m a Wheel” found Sansone windmilling like a young Pete Townshend.
Having seen them at the end of a tour in 2007, seeing Wilco at the beginning of one in 2009 just wasn’t the same. I prefer seeing the band go for broke with one last gasp and a sigh of relief as they get ready to go home than I do seeing the band holding it in reserve for the long road ahead as they try to find the songs new and old that will come to define it. Still, Wilco is clearly a band at the peak of their powers and they can’t help but shine bright even if they’re going through the motions a bit on a given night.
Tweedy has never been a talkative guy, but even by his standards, the Cincinnati show was remarkable for its lack of audience interaction. It was a full 30 minutes into the show before Tweedy spoke to the audience. One of the only memorable exchanges occurred when Tweedy spotted a sign in the audience from a fan who had driven from Chicago to see the show. His reaction: “So what? So did we. We drive everywhere.”
For the record, Tweedy had nothing to say from the stage about the recent passing of ex-Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett. Despite the fact that the band played many songs from the Bennett era that might have provided an opportunity for a mini-tribute, that’s not really Tweedy’s style (not to mention the fact that there was no love lost between the former bandmates). He prefers to let the songs speak for themselves for the most part. And with this band behind him, speak they do.
Opening act The Heartless Bastards have Cincinnati roots but are now based in Austin. During their set, singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom, who from 15 rows back looks a little like ex-Saturday Night Live player Cheri Oteri, recalled seeing a production of “The Lion King” on the same stage a few years back. Unfortunately I wasn’t exactly — wait for it — “feeling the love tonight” for this four-piece band, whose modus operandi is pummeling songs into submission with little nuance or flair. Wennerstrom shows off a parade of vocal tics and howls which sound borrowed from the likes of P.J. Harvey and Siouxsie Sioux as the band thuds and plods behind her. Only a second guitar, and on their opening number pedal steel, provide any coloration to the band’s palette. The Heartless Bastards are clearly adept at what they do and are capable of attaining a certain power when they lock into a groove, but even in a 35-minute opening set, a little of their shtick goes a long way.