Let's take a trip back in time, to those halcyon days of five weeks ago, when the air was crisp and our joy palpable, and a lucky few of us were witness to arguably the best American band of the decade strutting its stuff. Imagine, if you will, a renovated, palatial theater out in the hills of Pomona, still in its infancy as a legitimate "it" spot for bands to play in Southern California, opening its doors to scores of hipsters, rockers, middle-age music lovers and more. Then stay with that image, and cut and paste into it that same band, delivering a two and a half hour celebration of their entire catalogue, and you'll have an idea of what kind of performance Wilco put on at the Fox Theater back in June.
Obviously this is a wee bit late, but the show has stood out clearly in my mind ever since, as it was the best I've ever seen them and probably in the running for my top 10 concerts ever. Wilco is one of those bands that I really love and listen to all the time, but somehow I still manage to forget just how good they are--how much I love them. They have a way of reminding me though, and the Fox show was no different. I think I have to start by talking about the venue, as I found it incredibly charming and a welcome addition to the stable of local venues. When you walk in to the main concert hall there are about four levels, similar to the Wiltern, but the floor is bigger. There are two, count 'em, two outside/roof bars, and plenty of places to just hang out between bands or during a less interesting opener, and there are a lot of balcony seats for those who want a grander view.
On the negative side, being a relatively new place, the fire marshal bungled things quite a bit at this show. While I won’t hold their safety laws against them, it was handled about as bad as you could handle it. The place has aisles along both walls in the main room, and they tried to keep it so the aisle on the left was for going down to the floor, and the other was for exiting. Then there's a middle aisle that runs perpendicular to those just before the last level above the floor. I was stuck in a log jam near the end of that row trying to get down to my friends, like a tiny version of the sea of humanity at the end of every day at Coachella, and the security people weren’t really telling us anything in front. Then from behind me came another security guy who was half-heartedly attempting to get people to clear out. Then, when Wilco came on, and they started letting some of us in the front of the pack down onto the floor, that same guy basically shoved me and tried to cut me off, when I’d been there for at least ten minutes with no indication that I wouldn’t be able to get to my friends on the floor. Bad job by the Fox and the fire marshal. Luckily, I got down halfway through "Wilco (the song)" and was able to join my buddies in the excellent spot they had picked out, just right of center and only ten feet or so from the stage. And that's when the magic really started.
Wilco has seven albums worth of material to work with at this point, in addition to the work they did with Billy Bragg, and they did a nice job of taking songs from every point of their career on this night. Three of the first five songs they played were new, but after that it was a free-for-all. For me, it was the first time hearing most of the new tracks, and I was suitably impressed, but the real treat was hearing many older gems, including some I'd never seen them play before. "A Shot in the Arm" is a live standard, but one that never gets old, and "Can't Stand It" has long been one of my favorite Wilco songs that they never played for me. When they got to the epic guitar solo at the end of "Impossible Germany," lead singer Jeff Tweedy's guitar went out suddenly, so lead guitarist Nels Cline (that's him on the left) seized the reins and noodled on like the virtuoso he is for a while, one of those great little moments that the best concerts offer without even trying.
By the time they got to the end of the set they'd been playing for nearly an hour and a half, Tweedy dancing around, swinging the microphone and trying to catch it, a task he even managed to accomplish a time or two. Then, after retreating off the stage, leaving us a few moments to collect ourselves, they came back out with a couple of mellower tracks before diving into the epic "Misunderstood" (which included Tweedy repeating the line 'Nothing!' forty times at the end) and "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," which raged on for a good fifteen minutes. At this point some fans began to leave, including myself, thinking they couldn't possibly be coming back. Oh, but they did, first singing "Happy Birthday" to guitarist/pianist Pat Sansone, then ripping into my favorite straightforward rocker of theirs, "Monday," and closing with "Hoodoo Voodoo," which featured dueling guitar solos between Cline and Sansone, each one hamming it up more than the other.
This time, they were really done; I suppose two and a half hours was enough for me if it was enough for them. We walked back out onto the street, the marquee flashing its old news across our faces, clutching our bits of memorabilia tight (see awesome poster I got below) as we compared notes on what we had just seen. We would remember to remember it, that's for sure.
Main set: Wilco (the song) / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / Bull Black Nova / You Are My Face / One Wing / A Shot in the Arm / Radio Cure / Impossible Germany / Deeper Down / Pick Up the Change / Can’t Stand It / Jesus, Etc. / Hate It Here / You Never Know / Theologians / Walken / I’m the Man Who Loves You / Hummingbird
First encore: Passenger Side / California Stars / Misunderstood / Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Second encore: Crowd sings Happy Birthday to You to Pat / Kingpin / Monday / Hoodoo Voodoo
(Photos swiped from the LA Times and OC Register, and they're from the actual show)