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Nels and Whistles

Wilco, Sept. 28, Meyerhoff

By Bret McCabe | Posted 10/6/2004

The name of the band is Wilco, but on the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stage the name of the game was try to keep up with Nels Cline. The lanky Los Angeles-based avant-everything guitarist joined the band earlier this year, and he doesn’t appear on its fifth and latest elusive effort, A Ghost Is Born, an album of aspiring Neil Young smoke vacuum-sealed inside glass-box production. Cline, an electric guitar alchemist whose potions can be heard with his own projects such as the Nels Cline Singers or with the criminally unknown composer/woodwinds player Vinny Golia, can create those Jimi Hendrix sentences full of noise flash and feedback filigree with which Ghost only flirts. And from the concert’s opening songs—Ghost’s “Hell Is Chrome,” “Handshake Drugs,” and “Muzzle of Bees”—Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche put a thunderous rock into sighs that feel rice-paper thin on record. Cline choked smoke from his gear corner, his hands’ fretboard-dance adding warmth and shake to a willfully opaque band that promised to turn the evening into the Nels Cline Sextet.

That it didn’t is a testament to a man who has worked as a sideman since 1980. Singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy is the intentionally vague engine that drives the Wilco bus, and the packed house—which stayed on its feet for much of the crowd-pleasing 23-song, 121-minute set—never let him forget it. The loyal greeted song-starts with cheers, and when Tweedy’s first guitar strike or Leroy Bach’s piano intro wasn’t familiar—as with some songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s disintegrating textures, which the group agilely translated into pulsating darts—lyrics’ first lines turned over memory cards that chords did not. After a Cline guitar solo, Tweedy turned Yankee’s “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” into a punch in the sternum. “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and “War on War” became rafter-climbing guitar anthems. And even Summerteeth’s “A Shot in the Arm”—as breezy as a crumbling romance song can be on album—found a sonic and emotional heaviness onstage that Tweedy prefers to dance around in the studio.

And that, if anything, is one of the more perplexing aspects of Tweedy’s songwriting since 1996’s Being There. He can write some genuinely moving lyrics, and he has a knack for stitching lovely melodies out of sound fragments and obtuse progressions, but he likes to combine them so that one rarely complements the other. Tweedy pens some of the more beautifully complex songs about the war between inner life and the outer world it inhabits, but he stages them in songs that deep-freeze the human out of them. Live, the inner propulsion of these songs can’t be so easily suspended. Without coaxing, the Meyerhoff crowd sounded off the “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm” bridge in the above song, and for once you started to understand why a generation of ‘90s y’allternative college students and NPR listeners has called Wilco a great live band. It can deliver the goods, and a flesh and blood audience responding to it put a quickened pulse in Tweedy’s “Something in my veins bloodier than blood” and “What you once were isn’t what you want to be any more” scream-sing refrains.

Tweedy has one of the more innocuous voices in rock, tinted with that anywhere Midwest non-accent that makes him sound average. But when he climbs into his upper register it’s like he uncorks a champagne bottle that spews his lines into VistaVision Technicolor. And it’s live injections like these that marry Wilco’s artful thought to visceral feeling—the thundering, heart-stopping piano pound bridge in Ghost opener “At Least That’s What You Said,” the three-guitar sincerity makeover of “The Late Greats” coy honky-tonk, letting the swing hiding in “Company in My Back” actually swing—that almost gets Wilco fence-sitters on the bus. Almost.

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