Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Bootleg: Wilco Live In Grant Park, July 4, 2001

Fourth of July is a holiday that sparks mixed emotions from many of the liberal arts-educated set that I run with. On the one hand there's something about the knee-jerk, Lee Greenwood-style that makes you wanna grab every red, white and blue bandanna'd person you see by the scruff of the neck and force them to read Howard Zinn. On the other hand, most people I know, no matter how discouraged they might be with "America" as it's force-fed us also recognize that they're inescapably American. Whether it's the "fuck you" independent spirit, the burning desire to be the best or the fact that we've found more new places to put cheese on a pizza than God itself, there's something impossible not to indentify with about our country. Plus, everyone loves getting a day off work to light explosives and play with fire while all day long.

It's these contradictory feelings, I believe, that always lead me to turn to Wilco at some point on every Fourth of July. They're quintessentially American but in the oddball, restless, lefty kinda way with one foot planted squarely in tradition and the other trying to kick dirt over that tradition and mess it up. Particularly I like to play, their fourth album and career masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a record that it was said "conjures a classic rock radio station on Fourth of July weekend". Not only does the music tackle feelings about place and conflicted loyalties ("Ashes Of American Flags" anyone?) but it the way it's bathed in layers of shimmery, staticy noise practically screams "American summer".

So its with that in mind that I present you a blast from the past - a bootleg of one of Wilco's all-time great shows. Eleven years ago today the band last took the stage at the now-extinct Taste of Chicago free Fourth of July show and introduced their hometown audience to a batch of new songs that would signal the beginning of the band's second act. It's fascinating to listen to, as you can hear a band poised awkwardly yet brilliantly between two versions of itself. 

The events leading-up to this show was captured brilliantly in Sam Jones' documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (and seriously, go watch that). You can see the palpable tension between the pop-mastermind Jay Bennett who suggests that they should focus on the old live warhorses and Jeff Tweedy who snaps "I don't wanna just fall back on a bunch of easy rockers". Tweedy was in process of kicking Bennett out of the band and this was, in fact his last ever show with Wilco. The tension from Tweedy's end is palpable seen when he pops a lame joke asking "did that song make my ass look fat?" and Jay Bennett's response "it's wasn't the song, it's the pants" is met by icy silence.

But that's between songs. Whatever else can be said Tweedy and Bennett were still making beautiful music together. Bennett had a heavy hand in the creation of all of Wilco's work f There's still a joyful sloppiness in the performance here that further years of touring has bled out of the group. Yet that more restrained version of the band that would bloom later on Sky Blue Sky or The Whole Love is starting to poke its head up as well. Wilco starts the show boldly, with two new songs and, to their credit, the crowd is loving it. "IATTBYH" stumbles and shuffles forward in all its halting glory while "War On War" coasts by on heavenly guitars, and instantly-memorable choruses that promise the faithful that this new Wilco will be something special. After that the band works steadily through it's catalogue with first a series of Summerteeth songs, then a group from Mermaid Avenue, as if to say "fine, we'll throw ya some bones before we blow your mind again."

The Summerteeth songs are full of vitality with Jay Bennett running amok on keys behind both "A Shot In The Arm" and "I'm Always In Love" while the band pounds them out with incredible energy. Glen Kotche had just joined the group on drums and hearing him sink his teeth into the material for the first time is impressive. With the Mermaid Avenue material, the band stretches out more with "Airline To Heaven" already sounding less like the mediocre album version and more like the live barn-burner it would later become with Nels Cline. "Feed Of Man" is even more impressive becoming an ominous country stomper that coasts by on scuzzy slide and electric guitar that sound like Satan rising out of the heat before Kotche's animalistic drumming bashes him back down. "Remember The Mountain Bed" is gorgeous as ever but it's the power-pop version of "California Stars" that shows the glory of this version of the band as Bennett keeps pushing Tweedy and the song with soaring keys and ripping guitars turning it from a laid back lark into all-out celebration.

The latter part of the set is split between new YHF material and Being There classics. The first performance of "Ashes Of American Flags" is spine-tingling in the musical restraint shown that let Tweedy's achingly lovely vocals hit home. This transitions well into "Red-Eyed And Blue" which shows that even a half-decade before this the band was starting to lean towards a more experimental sound that would be fully realized on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The first performance of "I'm The Man Who Loves" pulls the same trick in reverse - showing that even as Wilco progresses, it's still, at it's heart just a fun rock band (and yes, it does feature horns). The last two songs, show off the great strengths of Bennett-era Wilco as it ended, there onstage.

"Sunken Treasure" is one of Wilco's first truly great songs (along with "Misunderstood"), starting off as a simple ballad carried by Tweedy's creaky singing about miscommunication then morphing slowly into an abstract wall of noise and back again. It's Wilco doing a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot song before there was a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Then, the music stops, Glen's sticks count the intro and the band slams into that great closer, "Outta Mind (Outta Site)". Kotches furiously bashes away, Bennett's guitar snorts and snarls, somewhere in the background an organ swirls and Jeff Tweedy absolutely screams "OK, alright, OK ALRIGHT!" All the frustrations and growing pains and personal difficulties that Wilco's members were going through (and again, watch Jones' brilliant film for more on that) seem to pour out their instruments as they enjoy the living hell out of their last three minutes as a group by building a cathartic wall of noise together.

In between the final songs Tweedy offers a simple but heartfelt farewell. He's talking to the crowd but, of course, it's all too easy to hear him saying it to Bennett or even the old version of himself as a musician that he was shedding with the new material. He offers no apologies but also no regrets and simply says "we had a really, really good time. So, goodnight."

Download The Concert As A .RAR
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
War On War
A Shot In The Arm
She's A Jar
I'm Always In Love
Airline To Heaven
Feed Of Man
Remember The Mountain Bed
California Stars
Ashes Of American Flags
Red-Eyed And Blue
I Got You (At The End Of The Century)

I'm The Man Who Loves You
Sunken Treasure
Outta Mind (Outta Sight)

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