Thursday July 15, 2004
If rock’n’roll matters less than it used to, someone should tell Jeff Tweedy. Each new Wilco LP is accompanied by torment and drama, side-effects of the effort it takes to make this music for a man it matters to more than anything. Having lost half his band and his record deal in his uncompromising pursuit of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s new sonic terrain, Tweedy’s latest record, A Ghost Is Born, saw him torn between shattering migraines and painkiller addiction, kill and cure both shredding his nerves. Most dramatic of all, of course, was the way Yankee… prophetically tuned into America’s post-9/11 mood of fragile sadness and dread, label wrangles holding back its release till after the slaughter so it could act as a salve, and become Wilco’s biggest hit. Surfing into the Top 20 on the secret currents of your nation’s near-future nightmares?if Tweedy needed proof he was in the right job, he had it there.
This London show becomes another astonishing vindication. With his sharp black suit and hawkish, keen face, Tweedy looks cleansed of cares, as if he’s finally arrived where he wants to be. Wilco ease into “Muzzle Of Bees”, and by “At Least That’s What You Said” are building up a head of steam?Tweedy’s voice finding the soft parts in this snapshot of a relationship breaking, the literal bruises still raw, before starting an arthritic duck-walk and shaking like he’s in the throes of an electric shock, as Wilco squall and crackle with convulsive freedom. When not a soul in this packed house moves, I’m reminded of Tweedy’s infamous 1997 attempt to get a London crowd dancing, by leaping down to physically shake them alive, body by body. Seconds later, though, arms reach towards Tweedy from every point, a spontaneous outpouring of affection for someone who’s finally won a long, hard fight, gained acceptance he’s deserved since Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy runs extravagantly on the spot, arms up like Rocky, and you know this is going to be special.
“Jesus, etc.” sees him croon the words whose true heartbreak was still to be revealed when he wrote them? “tall buildings shake, voices escape, singing sad, sad songs”, the images of tiny bodies pinwheeling from the Twin Towers, and ghost-music echoing up from the ruins, found waiting at the heart of a pretty FM rock tune. “Keep smoking last cigarettes, all you can get,” Tweedy advises, and the bittersweet humour heals. “Ashes Of American Flags” soon follows, its litany of private despair leaving its own new sub-text till last. “I would like to salute, the ashes of American flags,” he sings quietly. Who burned them, and why, is left up to us, as synthesised storms and Tweedy’s quaking guitar take over. Like Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner”, Wilco are saying what the violence in their country feels like, not what it means. And all Tweedy really wishes, if you listen to all his words, is not to feel so sad, every single night.
Elsewhere, Wilco go easy on the 10-minute electronic drones that so enlivened recent records, sounding almost traditional. And though for a while I tell myself I’m watching the best band in America, in truth, the momentum does sag eventually. For the encore, though, with Tweedy puffing on another last cigarette, a touching full circle is turned. Wilco smile and harmonise like good old country boys, and we’re back with Being There’s “The Lonely 1” (1996), about a fan’s longing for a special band. Tweedy blows us a kiss. He is there, at last, and he knows it.