Damn, It Felt Good To See Wilco Again
For the first time in a year and a half, I finally went to a concert again Sunday night. Not that I was exactly out at shows every night before COVID-19. You know how it goes: Ever since I started having kids, I don’t make it out as much as I used to. This trend has intensified with each additional child, and it has continued as the live music schedule has picked back up this summer. In the past couple months, quite a few bands I like have toured through Columbus clubs, but due to busyness, exhaustion, and looming COVID dread, I hadn’t made it out to see any of them until a festival called Wonderbus on the Ohio State University campus brought one of my old favorites to town this past weekend.
How completely have I been living that dad life? One technical exception to this concert drought was one afternoon a couple weeks back when I played some covers with other dads from my street in the shelter house next to the playground at our neighborhood festival. Later that night I drank beers in my neighbor’s garage with an entirely different set of dads. Furthermore, consider that before heading to the show Sunday I attended church, drafted my fantasy football team, and took my kids to play in an inflatable pool at a backyard birthday party. I wanted to mow my lawn, too, but the day kind of got away from me. And, yeah, the band I went to see at sunset was Wilco.
Look, I realize the “Wilco is for dads” trope has traveled several light years beyond the point of cliché by now. I apologize to them. I apologize to you. But it occurred to me Sunday that I am living that cliché and loving it. Trash me if you must for being basic enough to both deploy this truism and embody it, but on this gorgeously temperate night in Columbus, it felt fantastic to be finishing out an especially fatherly weekend at a Wilco concert. And anyway, what is opening every show on your first post-vaccine tour with “A Shot In The Arm” if not a dad joke?
That said, part of the reason it felt so right to ease back into live music with this band is because they’ve been near and dear to my heart for two decades now, since long before I even considered becoming a father. Wilco have been a constant of my adult life — so constant that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen them. Fifteen? Seventeen? Nineteen? Ever since I drove down to Cincinnati to catch them at Bogart’s in the summer of 2002, fresh out of high school and newly immersed in their catalog, Wilco concerts have been a regular occurrence, a treasured ritual. I’ve driven all over the Midwest for Wilco shows. I’ve seen them upstage the freshly reunited Pixies in Barcelona. I’ve taken my own dad to see them in my hometown.
Thus, on this night, I was not only returning to general positives of the concert experience, like the anticipation of an artist taking the stage, the thrill of those opening notes, the elation of singing along to a favorite song — and to annoyances like other bands’ sets running late, people attempting to stand in front of you after you’ve patiently staked out your spot close to the stage, and beach balls randomly crashing into the back of your head. Thanks to my longstanding connection with the band, I was also stepping back into particular recurring quirks like Glenn Kotche twirling his sticks during the alternate “Heavy Metal Drummer” lyrics, Jeff Tweedy running in place during the end of “Hummingbird,” and a steady increase in sardonic banter as the show went on. “You haven’t been out in a long time, have you, sir?” Tweedy replied to one overeager audience member. There was a whole ongoing discourse about the beach balls. It was great.
Wilco were one of the last bands I saw before the pandemic too, when they played a local theater in support of the transcendently somber Ode To Joy. This was a much different kind of set, though: a summer festival gig at the end of a weekend dotted by the likes of Black Pumas, Kesha, and AJR. “Via Chicago” — as ever, descending into chaos before resolving into serenity — would be the closest thing to artsy, experimental Wilco on this night. There would be no “Misunderstood,” no “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” no “Poor Places,” not even something like “Muzzle Of Bees.” The limited window of time and the need to cater to St. Paul And The Broken Bones and Grouplove fans ensured that this would be as close to a straight-down-the-middle Wilco setlist as you’ll see.
Surprisingly, this did not include “California Stars,” which always struck me as this artful, slightly left-of-center country-rock institution at their most populist. Instead, they served up barbecue-ready rockers and jam-band-adjacent heaters aplenty. Nels Cline shredded as Nels Cline is wont to do, practically self-immolating at the peak of “Side With The Seeds.” Tweedy and Pat Sansone got their guitar-hero moments, too, the frontman wrangling finger-in-socket bombast out of his instrument on “I’m The Man That Loves You” and Sansone delving into twangy power-pop theatrics on “Box Full Of Letters.” “Art Of Almost” built tension and then blasted off at high speed. “Impossible Germany” traced its familiar path through fluttering solos and playful harmonized leads toward a climax that never fails to spark an involuntary smile on my part. When they slowed down, it was always with compact doses of melancholy like “If I Ever Was A Child” and “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” — not, say, the dour depths of “Ashes Of American Flags” and “Hell Is Chrome.”
As the main set rounded into its homestretch, the band played ultimate in-my-feelings sing-alongs “Jesus, etc.” and “Theologians” back to back — a pairing I didn’t think they could improve upon until they encored with alternate-universe classic-rock smash hits “The Late Greats” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” To have an album as stacked as Being There in your discography and to only dip into it on the final song of the night is an impressive (and mildly frustrating) flex. But such is the blessing and curse of seeing a band with such a sprawling discography. Wilco covered nearly every corner of it Sunday, welcoming me back to live music by reminding me how consistently inspired they’ve been for nearly three decades. When they walked offstage at 10:50 p.m. after a tight 20-song set, I wished they’d come back for one more. But I left satisfied, and frankly, a little part of me was also eager to head home and bank as many hours of sleep as possible before the baby woke up.
“A Shot In The Arm”
“Random Name Generator”
“Side With The Seeds”
“Art Of Almost”
“If I Ever Was A Child”
“Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”
“You Are My Face”
“Box Full Of Letters”
“Dawned On Me”
“I’m The Man That Loves You”
“Heavy Metal Drummer”
“I’m Always In Love”
“The Late Greats”
“Outtasite (Outta Mind)”