WILCO hosts a two night stand at Red Rocks

:: Wilco ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: June 22 and 23 ::

By Timothy Dwenger

Even for a band as consistently solid as Wilco, it’s got to be tough to live up to the hype. For the better part of the last decade, they’ve had accolades showered on them and been called things like “the best live band in America,” “as good a band as America can claim in the 21st century,” and even “the most important band in America.” Is it all just critics trying to snag headlines, or do these grandiose claims hold any water? Many say yes, but does it really matter at all?

Judging from the calm, down to earth and matter of fact persona of Wilco’s experimental and heavily jazz influenced guitarist, Nels Cline, the headlines and pull quotes are pretty much irrelevant because all that really matters is creating the best music that his band is capable of, day in and day out. Without that, there won’t be any accolades at all.

When The Marquee caught up with Cline in the midst of the band’s Spring tour, he wasn’t in a hotel suite sipping Cristal with a harem of women jockeying for his attention, or sitting with his feet up at an exclusive hotel pool in Vegas, as you might expect someone in a band of his stature to be doing. In fact, he had just crawled out of his bunk on a tour bus in southern Alabama and was sipping coffee as he stared out the window at the band’s crew playing football outside. For the most part, Cline is a regular guy, with regular problems and bills to pay just like the rest of us. The difference is, he pays those bills by playing guitar in Wilco, and there are only a few people in the world that can say they’ve done that.

Cline joined Jeff Tweedy’s band back in 2004 upon the departure of Leroy Bach, who had been an active member of Wilco for seven years dating back to around the time Cline had first met Tweedy. “I met Jeff in ’96 when I was touring in a band called the Geraldine Fibbers from Los Angeles and we were opening for Golden Smog,” said Cline referring to a relatively fluid group of musicians that Tweedy has played with over the years. “I sat in with them on the last evening of that tour and something was memorable in that performance. I continued playing music with the leader of the Geraldine Fibbers, Carla Bozulich, after that band broke up and in 2003 we opened a few Wilco shows in the Midwest. That was when I officially met everybody.”

It wasn’t long after that encounter in 2003 that the phone rang and Cline got the offer of a lifetime. “When Leroy Bach left the band I guess the idea was that maybe I could fit in and that’s when I got the call from Jeff,” Cline said, before going on to explain his reaction. “To be honest, I was surprised. I was pretty much shuffling around, mostly on the West Coast and sometimes in New York City, playing mostly jazz related music and I hadn’t been playing in rock bands in quite a while. I’d had a couple of touring offers that weren’t musically interesting, and even though I was broke, I just didn’t see myself doing any work that I didn’t want to do. In this case it was pretty obvious that I was going to do it because it was a really lovely offer and I knew that there would be a lot of freedom and flexibility in a rock band like Wilco. I knew it wouldn’t be a situation where I just learned parts and played the same hit songs every night. I also knew that there were really good, and talented, people in the group. In the end, I didn’t have to think about it for more than about four seconds.”

Since Cline joined Wilco, the group has released a double live album called Kicking Television: Live In Chicago, and a trio of studio albums, each of which received a Grammy nomination (they lost out to Foo Fighters twice and the late Levon Helm once). Their most recent record, The Whole Love, is an incredibly diverse project that Cline called “a rock record with some quiet songs.” It starts out with the album’s most experimental track, “Art of Almost,” and closes with a shuffling twelve minute melodically textured ballad called “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”

“I think the idea was to start the record strongly and surprisingly,” Cline said, as he explained the placement of these two very different tracks on the album. “I think ‘Art of Almost’ is hard to fit into a sequence. If it’s in the middle of a bunch of songs it might have sounded even stranger. I think you either have to end with it or begin with it. I think that ‘One Sunday Morning’ is another that you either start or end with and that limited — in a good way — the choices for those songs. So why not start out arms swinging and fist clenched with something surprising?”

If asked, many fans will probably tell you that while “Art of Almost” surprised them when it crackled to life for the first time, it isn’t too far out of the box for the Wilco they know and love. This is a band that has always prided themselves on being different and pushing the envelope to its breaking point, and even a little beyond. After all, their best selling album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was rejected by their label at the time because the execs “didn’t hear a single.” Yes, now it’s considered an experimental masterpiece, but there was a lot of time and anguish that went into getting it to be heard by the masses.

With that thought in mind, it could turn out similarly that “Art of Almost” eventually is heralded in the same way. Cline revealed his affection for the song as he discussed how this batch of Wilco songs took shape in the studio.

“Jeff came in with songs, but they weren’t necessarily all that fleshed out so that’s when the process of group arranging came into play. We demoed everything when they were pretty raw and in the case of songs like ‘Black Moon’ and ‘One Sunday Morning’ you are hearing early versions of us learning the songs,” said Cline. “They are sort of gussied up demos in a way because the freshness of those takes was something that we all thought sounded good. That said, a song like ‘Art of Almost’ was a very unobvious, surprising, and mildly elaborate re-imagining of a song that was really different in its demo form. It became embroidered with this new groove and with these electronics and this new form that ends with the guitar solo. In an extremely cool way, that song came out much differently than it had begun.”

And that’s not surprising for Wilco, which itself is currently much different than how it began. The only remaining members from the band’s first record are Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt, and their sound has evolved significantly since that first album, the heavily alt-country A.M., released back in 1995.

While Wilco has come through Denver several times in recent years, this summer marks their first two night stand at Red Rocks since 2003, when they opened for R.E.M, and Cline promised a largely different experience on each night.

“If I had to hazard a guess based on other two night runs we’ve done recently, I would say that we are going to repeat a couple of songs from the new record, maybe three songs that we tend to play regularly, and most of the rest of the set will be different from night to night,” he said. “We will also go through the files of the previous gigs we’ve played at Red Rocks and see what we played last time and work around that, too. A few things come into play there.

“Playing at Red Rocks is always an incredible honor and treat. We have friends coming from all over the country to catch those shows. It’s such a great place!”


:: Wilco ::
:: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: June 22 and 23 ::
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