Wilco – Live in Vancouver

Wilco just completed a short 16-gig tour of western North America to promote last year’s excellent album The Whole Love.  After today, the band jets across the sea to keep the love going into Scandinavia and all points beyond.  Your intrepid reporter was lucky enough to catch Wilco’s only Canadian show of the tour in Vancouver, British Columbia on 5-February-2012.

It has been fascinating to watch Wilco (the band) evolve over time.  Many things are different about the band since I first saw them at the Edmonton Folk Festival in August of 2000.  Back then, Wilco had just released the album Summerteeth, bookended by the Mermaid Avenue records of Woody Guthrie songs.  Seeing Tweedy & Co sonically assault the chilled-out, folksy, sunset vibe on a grassy hill in Edmonton was a revelation.  I’d always liked their records, but on that day I saw many clues to what a formidable live act they would become.

Fast-forward a dozen years and several roster changes, and Wilco are still in business.  And business is good!  The current six-man lineup has been in place for a few records now, and their shared sense of purpose and power is evident on stage.  Lead singer and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy is still the ringmaster, controlling the tone and tempo of the proceedings with his voice and body english and charming, humble stage banter.  That said, on Sunday night everyone in the band got a chance to shine.

Orpheum Theatre Marquee, Vancouver, BC

Sunday night’s gig was at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Vancouver.  The Orpheum was built in the 1920s during the later stages of vaudeville, and seats around 3000 patrons in opulent comfort.  Red carpets, wall tapestries, crystal chandeliers, intricate carvings and frescoes abound.

Orpheum Theatre Atrium

Not likely to be confused with CBGB’s, then.  Sometimes rock bands can get a little lost in plush surroundings like these, robbing them of their power.  But no such fate awaited the wily veterans of Wilco on this night.  Framed by their stage décor, which looked not unlike several dozen white bed sheets and pillow cases knotted to ropes, Wilco brought the rock to Vancouver.

Wilco Stage Setup, Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver BC

Just like the Folk Festival gig all those years ago, the band took the stage and challenged their audience with a daring triptych of songs right out of the gate.  The twisted beauty of one of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s hidden gems was sandwiched between The Whole Love’s two standout tracks.  Starting the gig with the hushed acoustic epic “One Sunday Morning” was an unexpected treat.  The band then took a hard left-turn into “Poor Places”, with its smouldering intensity and masterful blend of melody and dissonance.  The first of many highlights on this evening came from “Art of Almost”.  The band wrested every pound of force they could from Glenn Kotche’s drums and Nels Cline’s frantic high-wire guitar stylings.  A little over twenty minutes into the gig, and we’d already gotten our money’s worth.

In all, six songs from The Whole Love made it into the setlist.  “I Might” translated well to a live setting, its upbeat rhythms and new-wave melodies all but guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser.  The stage arrangement of “Born Alone” also helped to accentuate the push-and-pull guitar dynamics of the song.  The mid-tempo “Dawned on Me” worked well in concert, but I couldn’t help thinking that “Standing O” would be a better, tongue-in-cheek rocker to leave ringing in the audience’s ears.  The campfire charm of “Whole Love” kicked off the encore, and if audiences continue to sing along to the chorus it should stay in the Wilco repertoire for many years.

Tweedy prefaced the lone Mermaid Avenue song of the evening, “California Stars”, with a brief monologue.  He asked why, if the name of our home and native land is pronounced ka-na-da, then why are we called ka-NAY-dee-unz?  Shouldn’t we be ka-na-DEE-unz, if only to better suit the rhythm and meter of Wilco’s next song?  The grammar nerd in me thinks Jeff has a good point.  At any rate, it was fun to sing along to the first few bars of the newly-christened “Ca-na-DEE-an Stars”.

Tweedy was otherwise economical with his stage banter, goofing around with some yellow penalty flags that were thrown on stage (presumably in honour of SuperBowl Sunday) and congratulating a recently engaged couple near the front.  No forced shout-outs to Springfield or put-downs of North Haverbrook on this night.

Nels Cline got another chance to shine with some inimitable, tasty licks on “Impossible Germany”.  The moment at which the trio of guitars from Cline, Tweedy, and Pat Sansone fuse into a glorious roar at the end of the song may be the most thrilling thing that Wilco will ever do in concert.  Sansone is clearly relishing his opportunity to serve a larger role within the band.  He effortlessly moves from keyboards to guitars, depending on what the song requires, and his Pete Townshend poses are always a crowd pleaser.  Sansone and bassist John Stirratt are also taking on more vocal duties than ever, perhaps leveraging some new-found confidence from their Autumn Defense side project.  Several songs benefitted from having three vocalists in the mix.

A few songs have also undergone some sonic renovations.  “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” has been reinvented as a more acoustic number, replacing its electric quiet/loud bombast with a little more subtlety.  Perhaps some of that bombast was transferred to “Via Chicago”, where the ‘thunderstorm’ sections seem more jaw-droppingly cataclysmic than ever.  The highlight of set closer “A Shot In The Arm” was undoubtedly the fury of sound unleashed by pianist Mikael Jorgensen.  The normally bookish Jorgensen looked so animated and so caught up in the moment that, by the end of the song, I half expected him to kick over his wall of keyboards, scream “I am a golden god!!”, and leap head-first into the crowd.

The band reached way back into the catalogue for three songs from Being There to close out the encore.  “Red-Eyed and Blue” was rocked-up to better match the tone of “I Got You” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”.  While I appreciate hearing some of the rollicking oldies in the home stretch of a gig as much as the next guy, it may be time for the band to reinvent their encore set.  With so many great songs accumulating in the Wilco songbook, there’s only so much room for numbers by the first incarnation of the band.  On this night, tracks like “War on War”, “Kamera”, “At Least That’s What You Said”, “Muzzle of Bees”, and “How To Fight Loneliness” didn’t make the cut.  Unless Wilco start playing three-hour gigs (not likely since Kotche’s hands would probably disintegrate), there’s never going to be enough room for everyone’s favourites.  Such are the travails of having too many classic songs; qué sera sera.

On this night, Wilco faithfully delivered The Whole Love.  By the time the last of the appreciative crowd’s cheers echoed off the ornate walls of the Orpheum, it was obvious that the love was mutual.

Wilco on-stage duing "Walken", Orpheum Theatre

Wilco’s Setlist for 5-Feb-2012:
(from the Hermit’s notes)

  • One Sunday Morning
  • Poor Places
  • Art of Almost
  • I Might
  • I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
  • One Wing
  • Radio Cure
  • Impossible Germany
  • Born Alone
  • Spiders (Kidsmoke)
  • I’ll Fight
  • Handshake Drugs
  • Via Chicago
  • California Stars
  • I Must Be High
  • Pot Kettle Black
  • Dawned on Me
  • A Shot in the Arm

And for an encore:

  • Whole Love
  • Heavy Metal Drummer
  • Walken
  • Red-Eyed and Blue
  • I Got You (At the End of the Century)
  • Outtasite (Outta Mind)

Supporting act:  White Denim

Juno Awards 2012

The 2012 Juno Awards nominees were announced yesterday.  The Junos honour the best in Canadian popular music, across 40 different categories.  If you scan the list of nominees, you’ll probably see a few artists that you know and love, a bunch of artists that are kind of ‘meh’, a rogue’s gallery of musicians you’ve never heard of, and maybe a few that you wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.  Par for the course anytime you have so many categories spread across so many genres.  It’s impossible to follow every trend in an industry this big.

The most disturbing trend to me is the weakness of the Album of the Year category.  In a perfect world, this category should be a reliable bellwether for the health of the Canadian music industry.  Whenever you get critically acclaimed bands with enough commercial clout to get nominated for Album of the Year, the industry as a whole is likely doing just fine.  Last year, Arcade Fire managed to win the big prize with The Suburbs.

But here is the 2012 short-list:

Avril Lavigne – Goodbye Lullabye
Drake – Take Care
Justin Bieber – Under the Mistletoe
Michael Bublé – Christmas
Nickelback – Here And Now

Can we be honest for a moment here?  I don’t mean for this to sound like holier-than-thou anonymous hipster blogger belly-aching.  But in all seriousness, that list is f&cking embarrassing.

Sure, the 2012 nominees sold a shedload of records last year, and most had a relatively high profile in the all-important American market.  But if we are going to pretend that these are the five most important records released in Canada last year, then that’s just sad.

Nickelback continue to rewrite the same watered-down Metallica song again and again, complete with misogynistic lyrics and all the charm of a used condom.  Bieber and Bublé were nominated for Christmas records, perhaps the tackiest of all dialling-it-in, easy-money schemes.  I wasn’t even aware that Avril Lavigne was still alive, never mind making records.  Apparently she crawled out from under the Rock of Obscurity just long enough to caterwaul a dozen or so new Generation Y ditties about boys and problems and boy problems into her bedazzled iPhone.

If there’s any justice, Drake should run away with this category (if not run away from this category).  I’m not a particularly big fan of his music, but at least he did something this year to push along the state of modern Canadian popular music.

In fairness, a quick scan of the Album of the Year nominees for the past several years also reveals a depressing amount of dreck.  Unless you happen to think that Justin Bieber, Billy Talent, Hedley, and Simple Plan make the best records in Canuckistan, in which case you might also think that the best show on TV is CSI and your favourite colour is beige.

Perhaps we’ll just have to concede that Album of the Year is more or less reserved for the most commercially successful Canadian album, artistic impression being a secondary (but unnecessary) trait.  In a future blog, let’s examine the Adult Alternative Album of the Year category and see if we can find something a little more substantial (and a little less embarrassing) happening on the margins of the mainstream.

Upcoming Music Releases – February 2012

Yet again, February looks like a slow month for new releases.  A few albums are trickling out, but nothing too earth-shattering is on the radar. Expect to see the ‘mainstream indie’ release schedule pick up in March or April as bands get ready to tour behind new product.  New material is doubly important for festival season, which unofficially kicks off with California’s Coachella festival in April and continues throughout the summer across most of North America, Europe, and elsewhere.

7-February-2012:

Of Montreal releases their new album, Paralytic Stalks.  Expect it to sound like a gloriously weird melange of Beatles psychedelic-pop and obliquely modern alt-rock – unless Of Montreal go off on a completely different tangent this time out.

Air releases Le Voyage Dans La Lune.  Expect more Parisian coolness and languid, loopy bass lines on this modern-day soundtrack for a 100-year-old French science fiction film.  Perhaps these descendants of Pink Floyd’s trippy sci-fi soundtrack work will finally eclipse the sonic breadth of their heroes.

Sir Paul McCartney returns to popular music with Kisses On The Bottom.  The man’s credentials are well established, but has anyone really formed an emotional attachment to anything he’s released since the 1970s?  Tuesday will be the latest test of that hypothesis.

Van Halen’s comeback album, A Different Kind of Truth, also drops on 7-Feb-2012.  Since it features everyone’s favourite Electric Hebrew, ‘Diamond’ David Lee Roth back in the fold on lead vocals I’ll bet it’s interesting in its own way.  Advanced reviews suggest that Eddie can still bring the pyrotechnics like nobody else.  This album just has a LONG way to go to live up to the hype.

14-February-2012:

Valentine’s Day may remind people of loves lost and found.  On the same day, the UK’s Field Music releases an album called Plumb, which may or may not remind you of highly-polished English indie pop (think XTC for the modern set).

28-February-2012:

Montreal’s Plants and Animals release a new record called The End Of That.  This will be their third full-length album release, and should build on their modern-meets-retro rock bona fides.

Finally, another brick in Pink Floyd’s wall gets the deluxe reissue treatment, following up on recent reissues of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.  This time, the 1979 magnum opus The Wall gets the deluxe CD and LP treatment, with new sets containing various levels of opulence.  Put me down for a new double-LP version of the latest remaster. Rarely has misery sounded so universal and epic.

Road Trip!

Your faithful correspondent has been a little lacking in new posts lately.  Had a busy week at work, then had to get ready for a road trip.  I try to get out of town for a concert at least once a year.  It’s fun to hang out in different places, try new restaurants, and walk some new neighbourhoods.

This weekend I’m in the lovely city of Vancouver, BC.  I’ve caught Wilco on every western Canadian tour for the past decade or so, but this year for The Whole Love they’re not coming to my town (at least not yet).  So, mid-winter seemed like a nice time to head out to the west coast for a change of scenery.  The weather has been great here – yesterday was sunny and about 10 degrees C.  I’m told this is unusual for this time of year – typical weather is drizzly and closer to freezing.  But hey, it’s been a weird winter so we’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Another fun aspect of traveling is looking for new record shops.  In the ‘old days’ I would have gone spelunking for bootleg or hard-to-find CDs.  These days, it’s all about vinyl.  After a quick subway ride and a brief walk, I found a few great shops in Vancouver on Main Street.  The best of the bunch was Red Cat Records.  Lots of selection, knowledgable staff, excellent prices.  Other stores had more used vinyl (some had loads of used vinyl) but I’m mainly a collector of new LPs.

I was really hoping to find the two Jellyfish album re-releases on vinyl, but they were nowhere to be found, even on the Pacific coast.  However, I did find a nice copy of The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow:

Also found a copy of The Postal Service’s Give Up album, complete with a bonus 12″ with the singles and the b-sides that were released by SubPop back in the day:

My most fortuitous find was this R.E.M. live album, recorded in Dublin. Triple LP plus a bonus DVD – nice!  The band is sadly defunct now, but I’m looking forward to collecting their works on black platters over the coming years.  I know I’ve seen some of their I.R.S. era albums out on newly-released 180g vinyl; I’m expecting Warners to do the same with their latter-day stuff:

With six LPs in hand, I figured I’d better leave the store before I had too many treasures to fit in my carry-on luggage 🙂  Special thanks to Red Cat Records for being such a cool shop.  I will certainly be back the next time I’m in Vancity for a gig.  Maybe they’ll still have that Radiohead live double LP from 2001 that I spotted in the racks.

Looking forward to Wilco and White Denim at the Orpheum Theatre tonight, too!  Stay tuned for more on that.