Low – Columbia – Merriweahter Post Pavilion, Maryland – 2007-06-21

Where: Columbia – Merriweahter Post Pavilion, Maryland.

When: 2007-06-21

Several times throughout Wilco’s set at their stop in Columbia, MD Jeff Tweedy made reference to aging. Once about them getting older, the second about their fans getting older. And dying. While their fan base isn’t necessarily Rolling Stones age, from where I was sitting it was a reasonable statement. When the band took the stage, like any good respectful fans at a rock n’ roll show, my friend and I stood. Unfortunately we were the only ones, at least in my particular section. Two songs into their set I was poked in the side and asked to sit down. Not an unreasonable request however the reasons given to me by the middle aged folks behind us were this: 1) they didn’t feel like standing up, and 2) we were the only ones doing so. Should I dare conform at a rock show? Well, granted it wasn’t the Sex Pistols but my reasoning was this: 1) it was a rock n’ roll show, not the symphony, and 2) I sit for 9 hours a day, I’m gonna stand and do some rocking out. (Sitting 9 hours a day also gives me the income to afford a forty dollar seat not to sit in to see Wilco in the first place.)

So with that it’s official that Sky Blue Sky has pushed Wilco into NPR rock, granting them the stuffy shirt, pseudo-liberal, Blackberry toting audience. Because of this, and you heard it here first, SBS will be nominated, and most likely even win, a Grammy for album of the year. Think about it. The folks who decide these things are constantly chided for choosing the wrong albums for great artists and each year they try to become at least slightly more hip. Even when they make the attempt to get it right, they fail, often giving an award to something by an artist that wasn’t their best work. Elvis won a Grammy for a gospel album, Brian Wilson won for an instrumental performance, (and that was just a few years back,) and we won’t even bother with the Beatles getting hosed. So leave it the academy, or whatever the hell they’re called, to grant A Ghost Is Born “ best liner notes” and leave summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the dark.

Before I even get to the performance of openers Low and the new favorite band of boring white people everywhere, it should be noted that not once have I had a completely wonderful experience at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Granted it is one of the oldest outdoor amphitheaters in the country (parts of Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty were recorded here. How’s that for Volvo rock?) nestled into the woods and as of yet, hasn’t had its name changed by some mega-corporate sponsor. (Although it’s location in Columbia may have something to do with insulated winter jackets, I’m not sure.) But inside, well that’s a different story. Aside from the lowest priced beer running eight bucks, and only available in sizes of 24 ounces or larger, the need to rob you of your money was everywhere. There was a Starbucks, (wonder if I could have picked up that new Paul McCartney album?) and I was on the lookout for a Baby Gap and a T-Mobile stand. So was the actual concert enough to make it worth it? I keep coming back, don’t I?

Surprisingly Low’s set went over better than I imagined. Relying heavily from their latest, Drums And Wires, the 3 piece didn’t completely alienate the crowd. Alan Sparhawk’s voice and guitar filled the pavilion and for only using the bare minimum of a drum set, Mimi Parker was clearly heard as well, which is important when you’re singing songs about murder to a half interested crowd. What made their set remarkable is the fact they faced the daunting task on their own terms. They could have gone the easy route, playing their louder and/or shorter songs but instead they did what they normally do. Nels Cline joined them on “Dragonfly” stretching the song out for close to 10 minutes, the last 8 of which were walls of noise which was a pretty great fuck you statement. This put their set at about a half an hour and I had figured that that was the end. But they forged ahead with 3 more songs, including a shimmering version of “In The Drugs.” Classic comment over heard of the evening: “Well you’re not going to hear this on the radio.” Indeed.

Any negative opinions regarding Sky Blue Sky can be laid to rest when put in the context of the live Wilco setting. Overall the album is a slick sounding affair but when interspersed with songs from the last 3 albums it’s easy to see they’re not much different from summerteeth’s more pop moments. Something like “Walken” fits in nicely with “Kamera” and “War On War” while “Shake It Off” extends on some of A Ghost Is Born’s more esoteric moments. It was however the YHF songs that actually got people to their feet & earned the biggest applause.

Of the many times I’ve seen Wilco the formula has been the same. As a band they come out strong, this time opening with “A Shot In The Arm”, but it takes a while for Tweedy to warm up his personality. Lately he seems more than happy to let the rest of the band step into the spotlight. Nels Cline has taken on a larger role, accentuating older songs with his trademark bursts of noise and pushing the new material into uncharted territories, creating beautiful waves of sonic textures. As great as Jay Bennett was for Wilco it’s been far more interesting to watch them evolve with Cline. Drummer Glenn Kotche has also come into his own, breaking out of the quiet new guy role, as seen in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, (which began filming literally days after he joined the band) and now he smashes away at his kit like Animal from on loan from the Muppets band.

However when Tweedy opens up and begins a rapport with the audience the energy level of band and crowd increases. About three quarters of the way through the show, the surrounding AARP members finally rose to their feet, permanently, and finally it felt like an actual rock concert. The feeling carried over into the encores, all 3 of them, igniting the band. Opening the first encore with “California Stars” was a crowd pleaser but it was the 1-2 punch of “Poor Places” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” that was the evening’s most transcendent moment. As that beautiful noise grew louder an even more present Krautrock rhythm than normal bubbled before all 6 members hit the intro of the latter song running. In the space of these 3 songs they managed to show how a range of influences from Dylan and Guthrie can coexist beside Kraftwerk and Neu. Even during “Spiders” before the final onslaught of those power chords, they paused, silence filling the evening, stopping everyone dead. And at the right moment it was unleashed again.

The second encore was devoted entirely to the more popular, and I use that term loosely, numbers in the Wilco catalog. “Heavy Metal Drummer”, with some adlibbed lyrics, coaxed Kotche into humorously twirling his sticks mid performance like Tommy Lee, as Tweedy watched on. “Outtasite (Outtamind)” is perhaps one of the greatest 3 minute sing along pop songs ever, no different this time around, and “I’m A Wheel” is now making a place for itself in this context as well.

Encores are the rock equivalent to the intentional walk. Just as a pitcher shouldn’t waste his arm throwing 4 unnecessary pitches, crowds shouldn’t have to stand there applauding like idiots when we all know the band is coming back. But in this case it was worth it, coaxing them out for one more song, eliciting Tweedy to call us all nuts. Perhaps, but by this point the crowd was on its feet and dammit, we wanted more. What we got was “What Light” and it was a stunning way to end the evening. Now, if only everyone could have been that enthusiastic for the whole night.