What’s a rock band to do when its talisman guitarist has been struck down by COVID, forced to quarantine halfway through a European tour?
“Hola,” says Jeff Tweedy, who, having been hatless for most of the Chicago band’s recent tours, is wearing a tidy new Stetson that symbolises Wilco’s return to its country roots on new album ‘Cruel Country.’
“We are one man down,” he explains, after compadre Nels Cline earlier in the week announced he’d come down with Covid-19 and would spend the rest of the week holed up in San Sebastián. “Thank you for letting us play for you,” adds Tweedy, ever the amiable frontman.
With your eyes closed, Cline’s absence isn’t immediately noticeable on set openers ‘I Am My Mother’ and ‘Cruel Country.’ The latter’s lyrics – “I love my country, stupid and cruel; red, white and blue” – ring horribly true sung just hours after a US Supreme Court ruling removed American women’s constitutional right to abortion.
Guitarist and composer Cline joined Wilco in 2004, adding experimental flair to the band’s brand of alternative country rock, as perfected on albums like ‘Being There’ (1996) and embellished on indie classic ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2001). His not being there brings more tracks from both albums to the setlist, with ‘YHF’ mined in particular after the band recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with recent residencies in New York and Chicago.
As a result, the likes of ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,’ ‘Kamera,’ ‘Poor Places,’ ‘War on War,’ and ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ sound box fresh alongside stalwarts ‘I’m the Man Who Loves You’ and ‘Jesus, Etc,’ which inspires the first singalong of the evening from the enamoured Spanish crowd.
Fewer new songs can sometimes be a blessing at gigs by bands as long-in-the-tooth as Wilco. But so strong are the 21 new songs on ‘Cruel Country’ – a double album that slowly reveals its layers over the course of its 77 minutes – that it’s a shame Cline’s positive Covid-test means we don’t get to hear more.
Meanwhile, the set’s understandable omission of ‘Impossible Germany,’ the centrepiece of the incredible ‘A Ghost Is Born’ (2004) to which the classy Cline adds a majestic, towering guitar solo that elevates any Wilco gig to legendary status, means tonight feels a bit like a paella without any prawns.
Nevertheless, seeing Wilco as they were prior to Cline offers the chance to see other members take centre stage, with Tweedy impressively shouldering shredding duties on tracks like a brutal ‘At Least That’s What You Said’ and the rarely heard ‘Sunken Treasure’ from debut album ‘AM,’ while the banjo-tinged ‘Someday Soon’ brings a bit of spit ‘n’ sawdust to the venue and draws a satisfying through-line from past and present Wilco.
Elsewhere, bassist John Stirratt’s often underrated contributions come to the fore alongside the heavy but always inventive drumming of Glenn Kotche, who has been uploading a new drum beat every week on his Instagram since 2019 and uses a diverse array of drumsticks, including one that looks like an egg whisk.
Prior to this tour, Wilco had played just six dates in Spain over the past 10 years, most of those at festivals. It’s no surprise then that the crowd, which features people from age seven to age 70, is adoring throughout, a palpable thirst for the band emanating from the open-air venue. One Dad goes truly crazy during another deep cut – ‘Box Full of Letters’ from ‘AM’ – after his two children join him down front, appropriately enough, during ‘If I Ever Was A Child,’ from 2016’s ‘Schmilco’.
Tweedy’s world-beating songwriting continues to evolve as he reflects on his life and lineage. From the abstract on ‘If I Ever Was A Child’ (“I’d jump to jolt my clumsy blood / while my white, green eyes / cry like a windowpane”) to the more tangible on ‘I Am My Mother’ (“Oh, I can’t mend / every broken fence / I’m a new man / But I am still my mother), he can always be relied upon to strike a chord while playing a chord.
More serendipity comes when a feather floats past the front row as Tweedy – holding his hat to his heart – sings “His goal in life was to be an echo / The type of sound that floats around / And then back down like a feather” on a stunning ‘Hummingbird.’ It’s one of the few tracks played tonight from ‘A Ghost Is Born’ until the encore, when air drumming abounds during ‘The Late Greats’ and closer ‘I’m a Wheel’ as Wilco nestle in the sweet spot between country and rock’n’roll.
Prior to that, Tweedy dedicates ‘You & I,’ the bittersweet love song from Wilco’s self-titled 2009 album, to the crowd, who by now are radiating a beery warmth back to the band, the sun now set. So what’s a rock band to do when its talisman guitarist has been struck down by Covid, forced to quarantine halfway through a European tour? Charm the pants off them, is the answer.
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Words: Nico Franks
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