The U.S. Government owns a laundry list of trophy properties, from stunning national parks to idyllically situated military bases. Few interact directly with the citizenry on a cultural level, though, and few music venues in general are as wonderfully conceived as Wolf Trap, “America’s National Park for the Performing Arts.”
It’s a tremendous facility, one with first-rate sound and eclectic bookings that appeal to a wide range of American tastes. Its outdoor amphitheater squeezes in around 7,000 patrons both in covered seating and upon the surrounding grassy hill that often turns into a blanket-covered wine and cheese festival during the summer season. And, for the facility’s July 17th and 18th shows, Wolf Trap plus wine plus white people equaled Wilco. (Let’s just assume that the first show had a similar setup, as we’re only discussing the second).
This isn’t to say that a Wilco crowd lacks diversity in its audience…a wide range of ages populated the crowd, from the license-less youth who begged their parents to take them, to parents dragging along their kids, to the generations in-between (that were able to attend without members of their nuclear family).
The Capital Region has suffered from excessive heat in recent weeks, and thankfully a strong spate of late afternoon rain had lowered temps from oppressive to bearable without generating conditions that would have made it impossible for the pleasant noshing on the hill that many consider integral to the Wolf Trap experience. Humidity’s effects increased the audience’s collective sheen, to be sure, but thankfully (and luckily) neither triple digit heat nor monsoon-like rains marred the set.
Wilco’s stage setup contributed to a vibe that was akin to the ambiance of a southern country club’s back patio. As in last year’s shows supporting their 2011 album, Born Alone, they performed in front of a backdrop characterized with white fabric draped liberally above the stage like a weeping willow tree that had been TP’d by a group of teenagers looking for ways to mitigate their summer boredom. Unique lighting around and shrouded within the hanging fabric were highlighted as it swayed gently like wind chimes in the summer breeze, creating the feeling of sitting around a farmhouse fire pit or on a back porch watching fireflies flicker in the evening air. In an era where most every act zigs with LED lighting to create stunning visual cacophony with MTV-esque pacing, Wilco’s staging zagged, combining old-timey ambiance with a distinctly modern set list.
Wilco’s roots may be in alt-country, but their post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot output has shifted towards melodic songs layered over an underlying and properly disconcerting dissonance. It’s not an accident that this followed connections made with members of Sonic Youth (Lee Ranaldo opened the show in his solo capacity) and the addition of the ridiculously talented experimentalist, Nels Cline, following the YHF-era departure of the (late) Jay Bennett.
Ranaldo, supported by Nels Cline amongst others, is a guitarist with few peers and did an admirable job in a setting not normally host to no wave / noise pop groups. As he laid down his melodic and fuzzy licks, he perfectly set the mood for the undercurrent pervading Wilco’s more recent shows. They’ve embraced the incorporation of non-traditional sounds and electro-driven noise in a way not dissimilar from Radiohead, but in a way that melds neatly with the melodic and jam-heavy songs that wind up and unleash furious pathos in ways that might remind some of live performances by The Allman Brothers Band or My Morning Jacket.
Their second song – “The Art of Almost,” the first track off of Born Alone – jumped into the jam with both feet and laid down the marker for the rest of the show. What becomes immediately apparent at any Wilco show is that the Cult of Tweedy is overwrought. This isn’t to say that Tweedy isn’t a phenomenally talented musician and a troubadour with a wonderfully laconic and emotive delivery, it’s just that this is a band with incredible overall talent. Take the aforementioned Mr. Cline, for example: his talent level is ridiculous and somewhat stupefying. At times he was playing guitar with one hand while adding electronic parts with the other, all while working pedals and then switching guitars mid-song. Impressive. And so on, and so forth, the living machine of a band is indeed a tightly choreographed sum of its parts, all of which are of the quality German engineers would endorse.
Their wide-ranging stylistic diversity was on display, from those that showcase slide guitar and alt-country inflections, to those with Beatles-influenced keys and guitars, to those where symbolic dissonance and plaintive pop accompanied lyrics that cut to the emotional heart and through the fog of life’s travails. One of the highlights of the latter was, without a doubt, the crowd-pleasing rendition of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” It’s a song so raw, so polished, so wonderfully ironic and appropriate — at the same time – that it’s no wonder critics fell hard for YHF upon hearing its first track. (Even if their record label wasn’t quite as impressed).
That dissonance was also on display within crowd, as some audience members were more enthusiastic in their embrace of the rock show experience than others. Within the amphitheater itself, “diversity” – perhaps inevitably — led to an incident that diminished enjoyment. A particularly prickly middle-aged gentleman became incensed at the audacity of those – this reviewer in particular – with the inclination to (gasp) stand during a rock show. Explaining that sitting would mean that I couldn’t see the show (due to those standing in front of me) meant little to a guy probably thinking that his I’m-a-big-man-routine would impress his teenage sons, and spurred him to toss out a selection of anatomical references that the FCC doesn’t deem broadcast-worthy. Note: IT’S A ROCK SHOW …if you’re sitting you’re probably in the wrong place.
Other than this trifle the show was largely unassailable, with the possible exception that it is impossible for a fan to see a band like Wilco without wishing they played a number of songs that didn’t make the (almost two hours long) set list. Befitting a week in which Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 years old, the band turned to their Guthrie-inspired work with English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg to pay tribute to the folk legend, delighting a literate crowd that had likely been reminded of the anniversary by whatever NPR segment they’d recently ingested.
It was a fitting encore salute to the man who penned a song many associate with America’s National Parks, one of the true signs of this nation’s wealth. And perhaps fittingly, properly dissonant in a fantastic facility in a National Park located in Fairfax County, one of the richest in America. After all, the Dust Bowl Troubadour would surely have some thoughts for the ticketed wine and cheese denizens enjoying America’s bounty on a pleasant summer evening.
Art Of Almost
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Side With The Seeds
Spiders (Kidsmoke) (acoustic arrangement)
Laminated Cat (aka Not For The Season) (electric arrangement)
At Least That’s What You Said
I Must Be High
Can’t Stand It
Dawned On Me
A Shot in the Arm
Airline To Heaven
Christ For President
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Dreamer In My Dreams