Monday, February 8, 2016

Review: Wilco Brings Star Wars to Brooklyn's Kings Theatre

Photo by Jason Gonulsen

I hadn't seen a concert in two months.

Hell, I've yet to see the new Star Wars film.

But lately, I've been listening, carefully, to Wilco's Star Wars, an album they, once again, gave away for free to everyone with a reasonable internet connection.

There was no warning, no cute days-leading-up-to-the-release countdown on their web site, or changing their Facebook profile and cover photos to give away the slightest clue that something was up. All there was a link to click, and then to press play on whatever device you had in front of you. I'm not saying this is the right or best way to release an album. I just happen to like it.

That was back in mid-July. But I wouldn't really get to know Wilco's Star Wars until it was released on vinyl in October, because that's when I can sit on my couch or lie on my hardwood floor and enjoy music the way I prefer to listen to it.

Yes, I still go to record stores and buy music. I feel, rather strongly, that when we lose that connection, that experience of walking into a store, then we've lost a huge part of what makes music so personal and special. I almost always purchase vinyl, even when a free download has been delivered to my Gmail. It's not because I'm a hipster. It's because it means something to me that I can hold a piece of art, and not have it be a file that sits in a folder on my desktop. I want to unwrap something, place it on my turntable, and have to flip it over when a side is finished. And I'm no audiophile, but I still haven't found anything better than listening to vinyl in the comfort of my own home.

If I had my way, I would listen like this for a few weeks before seeing the material performed live. Surprises are fine in concerts, but with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,, and every other form of social media that does not require an actual voice to communicate, let's face it -- it's hard to be surprised these days. So, my choice these days is to get as familiar as possible to the songs, and then go to the show.

You might say this creates expectations, and I wouldn't disagree. But, before Saturday evening at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, it hadn't stopped me from seeing Wilco twenty times prior, a number I thought was absurd, until my friend Courtney told me before the show that she had recently talked to a man who had seen Springsteen 200+ times. Whoa, I thought, that's devotion. To see live music, write about it, and often photograph it (and then edit those photos), I (gladly) have to give up going out to bars, binge watch television shows on Netflix, and, well, anything else that takes time.

Time, man. Time that I just don't have. Time that I would rather spend planning a trip to New York to see my favorite band, because, to me, it's still an adventure.

I don't want to waste any more time.

33 minutes. That's how long Wilco's Star Wars is. Live, it even feels shorter, which is a testament to its strength, but that's also probably a reason why they have chosen to open every show on the current Star Wars tour by playing it in full, in order, with little or no banter from Jeff Tweedy in between songs. You see a lot of bands promoting tours by promising they will play this album or that album, but Wilco's approach feels more like when Neil Young performed Greendale in its entirety in 2003. He didn't hype it. He just did it.

So, Brooklyn. A beautiful, restored theatre, a place I had never been, hearing Star Wars live for the first time. A strange and wild experience. New constellations, for me, anyway.

Things kicked into high gear with "Random Name Generator," the best Wilco song in years, and the one that will almost surely stay in Wilco set lists for years to come. On this night it was a fireworks display that set up the anchor of Star Wars -- the spacey and atmospheric "You Satellite," a song that should kill any notion that Wilco is a folksy, alt-country band. They are not. They are more experimental than they've ever been, even more than when they released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the once-in-a-generation album that, ironically, caused Reprise, their record company at the time, to say, "you know, you're free to leave." Most of you reading this know that story. The rest of you can watch the documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.

Star Wars is not "Passenger Side." It's an album that doesn't beg to be different for the sake of being different. It's what Wilco is now, which is a band that has had same lineup for twelve years, a touring force that does whatever it wants.

They move gracefully from "Cold Slope" to "King of You," and then provide a final moment of Star Wars glory with "Magnetized." It starts and stops. Fades and regains its composure. Its an ending that soothes with a final message: "I realize we're magnetized." We could be floating in space, but we're still connected. Somehow, we can't do it alone.

The show then launches into "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," and all hell breaks loose. It's a cathartic way to introduce their older catalog, but again: this is who they are now. Wilco is as more about destroying its art than it is creating it. Soon, "Art of Almost" almost forces this idea of tearing down the past to the audience. These aren't pop songs. They're paintings that look and sound different every time I hear them live. New colors, different places. Plans change, people change, kind of like most of us live. We can be scattered and still feel as alive as ever before.

They are able to include a pop song, "Heavy Metal Drummer," in the set list and not make it feel like a mixed tape gone wrong. It follows "Box Full of Letters," a song that was released twenty one years ago, and it sets up the manic "I'm the Man Who Loves You." But nothing feels like more of a release than "Impossible Germany." The spotlight turns toward guitarist Nels Cline, and if you've been to a Wilco show, you know the places he takes you with that solo. In and out of bluesy space. It lands on the moon and then comes back to earth just in time. It's like when you lose a lot of weight and suddenly your clothes fit differently: you are changed after you experience Nels Cline play guitar.

We're given an encore after all of this. An acoustic hootenanny, that begins with "Misunderstood" and ends with a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Everyone sings, and it's a reminder of what we've lost, what we really still don't know, what we still have to figure out.

It comes after "A Shot in the Arm," which includes the line:

What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore.

Because it's okay to change. It's okay to do what you want with your life. It's okay to take chances and want to fly into space, leaving everything behind.

A shot in the arm is a mystery, and maybe that's all you need.

Set List via Wilco:

01 - More...
02 - Random Name Generator
03 - The Joke Explained
04 - You Satellite
05 - Taste the Ceiling
06 - Pickled Ginger
07 - Where Do I Begin
08 - Cold Slope
09 - King of You
10 - Magnetized
11 - Spiders (Kidsmoke)
12 - I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
13 - Art of Almost
14 - Hummingbird
15 - Box Full of Letters
16 - Heavy Metal Drummer
17 - I'm the Man Who Loves You
18 - Dawned On Me
19 - Impossible Germany
20 - Red Eyed and Blue
21 - I Got You (At The End Of The Century)
22 - Outtasite (Outta Mind)
23 - Misunderstood
24 - It's Just That Simple
25 - War On War
26 - A Shot in the Arm
27 - Space Oddity (David Bowie Cover)

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