Wilco w/ Mavis Staples

ARTS, Music
ALEXANDER BISLEY on the First Lady of Gospel; LUKE BUDA on Wilco’s first tour of the new year.

She said no to Bob Dylan. Yes, Chicago’s Mavis Staples turned down the creator of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and Visions of Johanna’s hand in marriage. The First Lady of Gospel delivered one of 2007’s best albums with We’ll Never Turn Back. Her Friday night performance at WOMAD 2008 was extraordinary, the musical and moral force of her civil rights freedom songs overcoming as the Obama era gained momentum.  In 2010 she joined with Jeff Tweedy for 2010’s Grammy winner You Are Not Alone.

Opening with ‘For What It’s Worth’, Mavis hit full voice with ‘Eyes on the Prize’. Supported by a tight group of six dynamic, rhythmic musicians—allowing her, the star, space—she energised the crowd with the fiery staple. “Yeah, keep your eyes on the prize,” she throatily addressed the crowd after, “we gotta keep holding on.” Her themes: “joy, happiness, inspiration, positive vibrations.”

The Weight’ built the vibe, concluded stalwartly with at least seven plangent cries of “put the load” and 14 of “yeah” and a tribute (“Give it up”) to the Band’s late Levon Holm. “I feel good. How bout you?” Then she introduced Jeff Tweedy. “He wrote this specially for me. Thank you Tweedy,” she smiled, like the winningly scruffy Wilco frontman was her favourite grandson, before a Wilconian rendition of ‘You Are Not Alone’. The rapport between Staples and Tweedy was vibrant and convincing.  “I want to get it through to you,” she emphasised, deftly working the crowd.

Freedom Highway’, her searing homage to the Staples Singers’ 62 song for Dr King’s march from Selma to Alabama, was even weightier (and closed with six testifications of “I won’t turn around” and “No”). She reaffirmed her commitment to the battleground of love, peace, and hope (“until Dr King’s dream has been realised”) with an involving ‘I’ll Take You There’. Three of her band, including incandescent lead guitarist Rick Holstrom (‘the new Pop Staples’), were cut loose with the outro. So Mavis took us there, still powerful in content and style. “We’re pretty good,” Tweedy said later, “but Mavis’ a fuckin’ legend.” He added, “We were booing when she said ‘It’s time for Wilco.’” My one complaint is the set was a touch under 40 minutes. Sure, we had two hours of Wilco following, but she needed another 10-20 minutes. We coulda had ‘Down in Mississippi’, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ or ‘Hard Times’.  But then Glenn Kotche (read our interview here) hit the drums hard, and I knew something special was coming.—Alexander Bisley (@alexanderbisley)

*   *   *

A couple of days ago I had no intention of seeing Wilco this time around.  I didn’t really enjoy them the last time they came and I don’t particularly like their latest album The Whole Love (a couple of tracks aside). Furthermore, when I was offered the ticket I felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm, the like of which I haven’t felt since the heady days of the Morrissey gig a couple of months ago. Thus: I had low expectations. However…

Wilco were very, very good.

They opened with ‘Misunderstood’, a live favourite from the 1996 album Being There. It was the blueprint for the rest of the night: loud and chaotic passages crashing into introspective singer-with-guitar moments, the many instruments on stage slowly introducing themselves into the arrangements: first the organ, then the chimes, then the strings, etc nothing hurried, everything quietly sure of its place. From there we got a very considered set list that spanned all eight of the band’s studio albums.

Particular highlights were ‘Via Chicago’ and ‘Radio Cure’. ‘Via Chicago’ was a great example of how Wilco can go from traditional, almost middle-of-the road ‘alt’ country, to crazy aggressive noise and back, and make it seem completely fine and dandy and natural. There was an overwhelming moment in the song where singer Jeff Tweedy just kept quietly strumming his guitar and singing along as if the band (in that moment very much led by the highly skilled drummer Glenn Kotche) were not making as much horrible noise as they possibly could behind him. The crowd loved it. ‘Radio Cure’ came as a bit of a surprise to me and provided a dramatic contrast with the brash bigness of the rest of the gig, which had more of a huge stadium vibe. For some reason I didn’t anticipate them playing it—perhaps because I couldn’t see how the bleak, Cohenesque nature of the track would work live and saw it as a finely constructed studio piece. But it worked. During the entire song guitarist Nels Cline made his guitar sound like an old transistor radio tuning in. It was one of the few songs where he didn’t play a blistering guitar solo. Actually he was making amazing sounds on his guitar all night—he is a contemporary guitar vituoso after all.

In fact, the high level of musicianship on display definitely deserves a mention, even if it is a given. Wilco are not at all coy about being very good professional musicians. At times they reminded me of some supreme ’70s supergroup that never was: a weird cross between ELO and The Band and Captain Beefheart, though none of those references are quite right. As much as there is a place for naïve music/art, or whatever, there will also always be a place for high craft, which is what we get from Wilco. A big band, with a big sound, that seems unafraid of appearing accomplished while (thankfully) steering shy of being slick.

There was a slight dip towards the end of the gig with songs like ‘Walken’ from Sky Blue Sky or ‘Box Full of Letters’ from A.M., the kind of Wilco that invites hipster types to label the band as dad rock or boring.  In the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (2002) Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett have an argument about these kind of tracks—dubbing them ‘easy rockers’. In my experience, the band seem to routinely go for the ‘easy rockers’ finale, which is a bit of a pity as the rest of the material was weighty and interesting and certainly not lacking in any way.  The little indulgence at the end of the set didn’t detract from the fact that this was a very good concert by one of the best live acts in the world.—Luke Buda (thephoenixfoundation.tumblr.com)

Wilco with Mavis Staples and Band performed at the Wellington Town Hall on Friday, April 5. They play at the Auckland Town Hall tonight.