Thursday, February 12, 2009

George's Summer in live music #4: Wilco w/Bon Iver

2. Wilco
August 7th, 2008
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
North Charleston, SC
Bon Iver opens

My first go-round catching Wilco at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center (third time overall) was middling. The show was fine, the setlist was above average, and I met the band after the gig. It all sounds pretty damned memorable, no? Factor the crushing realization I experienced upon entering: that my tickets were not for front row (a banner I'd been waving for two months prior) but were, in fact, for the front row of the upper tier. Soured the night a bit. Try to imagine the deflation that might result from being ushered to row 40 when the ticket you'd misread had promised you front row for months!

Alas, redemption is a dish best served cold. (It's revenge, I know, but bear with me.) When Wilco announced its August 7th date at the NCPAC, I was late on the uptake for various excusable reasons, and only managed a grand tier seat. But some helpful pals kept their ears open and I landed in the fifth row, almost dead center. That's about optimum territory at the NCPAC, about eye-level with the artist. No neck-craning or eye-straining necessary.

The icing on the cake was the opener: Bon Iver, the recipient of a mountain of critical praise for his storied For Emma, Forever Ago LP. The crowd was thin for Justin Vernon and his band of three, and the houselights were never fully dimmed. Still, he band rolled out most of the pleasers from Emma in grand fashion, including "Creature Fear", "Flume", and a roaring "Skinny Love" that nicely rewarded those of us who'd rather catch an up-and-comer than wait ten minutes for a $6.25 bottle of Miller Lite. Justin closed his set with album-closer "Stacks"; the gentle, grainy electric strums urging his falsetto through the song's six minute span.

Wilco was greeted with a maniacal applause. I should mention that this was a make-up show. Wilco was slated to play Charleston on February 29 (a show I would not have been able to attend!) but cancelled due to nabbing a slot on Saturday Night Live.

Perhaps they felt indebted to their Carolina fanbase--more likely, they're just that good--but Jeff and crew absolutely delivered. Of the six Wilco sets I've caught over the years, this night's was peerless. Jeff Tweedy was in an incredibly jovial mood, gabbing with the crowd, even pulling an audience member onstage and calling attention to the grotesque-looking Tweedy sketch that was printed on his shirt. "Do I look like that? It looks more like a Geico cave-man," Tweedy joked, lowering his face to the guy's shirt and mugging playfully. The fan managed to signal his friend to take a picture. Tweedy posed with him, issuing the mock warning "Alright, now you're pushing it..."

The rest of the band was just as giddy. Multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone tossed maracas twenty feet in the air during "Heavy Metal Drummer" and employed Townshend theatrics in his guitar-playing. Drummer Glenn Kotche sprayed sweat and flashed twisted grins while putting the hurt on his fancy kit. Don't forget pianist Mikael Jorgensen and guitar god Nels Cline, manning stage right and looking rather Scandinavian, who were slick attackers like leather-capped dogfighters, coolly slaying every line-item on the staggering setlist. John Stirratt, the only original Wilco member besides Tweedy, provided harmonies and thumpy basslines throughout and, as always, was a pleasure to watch.

Regarding that setlist, it actually started rather slow, opening with the revamped "Sunken Treasure" they've been doing for a while, followed by a few Sky Blue Sky tracks. "Blood of the Lamb" was a curious choice, a deep cut from Mermaid Avenue Volume II, that featured a nice clarinet solo from one of the horn-players the band brought along. Methinks that was the real reason they dusted the tune off.

"Impossible Germany", eight songs in, was when I really felt like the show got rolling. They followed the crowd-pleaser with "Pieholden Suite", the Summerteeth cut that is super-rare and featured Nels on the banjo. In fact, three Summerteeth tunes made the cut: "Pieholden", the title track, and album opener "Can't Stand It", which won song of the night honors if you ask me. I once heard a record-store owner call it 'the perfect pop song', and indeed it was a late addition to the album due to the label pressuring the band for a single. Wilco cleverly tacked it on as the first track, so as not to interrupt the flow of the album. For that reason I'd always looked passed it to the true album opener "She's a Jar". But hearing it live definitely raised its stock.

We got two encores, six songs worth. The first encore started with "Misunderstood." I stand by my assertion that "Misunderstood" is one of the wonders of today's live-music world. The song is like an early era "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", verse after verse building until the whole damn thing boils over into an explosive climax, one that lasts for about 2 minutes (doesn't that sound nice?) "I'd like to thank you all for nothing, I'd like to thank you all for nothing at all, I'd like to thank you all for nothing--" The following minute or so is especially epic: Tweedy's repeated call of "Nothing!", which often numbers in the high 30s, the entire audience roaring along in unison, the syllables backed by a sudden full-band bang-bang. What's really special is the split second of piercing silence between each "Nothing!". There's nothing quite like drinking in that void after each stocatto explosion of sound.

The rarely-played b-side "Cars Can't Escape" came next, a reward to the devotees perhaps. "Spiders" closed the first encore, and after a minute or two, the band finished us off with three of its best rockers: "The Late Greats," "Monday," and "Outtasite (Outtamind)". And that was that.

Since I always have to complain about something, I would have liked to have heard something from A.M.--never have heard an A.M. song in any of the six shows--and a second Mermaid Avenue tune, perhaps "California Stars" or "Remember the Mountain Bed." But who gives a shit, really...the show was an A+. The setlist drew generously from Being There and Summerteeth, including some rare gems, and the band was in perfect form. The whole night was a joy, from Bon Iver's entrance to Wilco's final exit, and it was a nice way to finish off an especially memorable summer of live music.

Full setlist:
1. Sunken Treasure
2. You Are My Face
3. Side With The Seeds
4. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
5. Company In My Back
6. Blood Of The Lamb
7. Handshake Drugs
8. Impossible Germany
9. Pieholden Suite
10. Forget The Flowers
11. Summer Teeth
12. Jesus, Etc.
13. Hate It Here
14. Can't Stand It
15. Heavy Metal Drummer
16. Walken
17. I'm The Man Who Loves You

Encore 1:
18. Misunderstood
19. Cars Can't Escape
20. Spiders (Kidsmoke)

Encore 2:
21. The Late Greats
22. Monday
23. Outtasite (Outta Mind)

Check these out too:
George's Summer in Live Music #1: Radiohead
George's Summer in Live Music #2: Tom Waits and Fleet Foxes
George's Summer in Live Music #3: The Hold Steady

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