What is Wilco? It’s certainly not the same band that made its debut eighteen years ago, and front man Jeff Tweedy is not the same guy who mourned “I just can't find the time / To write my mind / The way I want it to read” in AM’s “Box Full of Letters.” Now it’s almost as if Tweedy and the gang have all the time in the world – time enough to stage a satisfying close to Forecastle 2012 this past Sunday with their unusual amalgamation of comfort and rock.
What an outdoor festival does to Wilco is capitalizes on their lifelong evasion of definition – Are they alt-country? Are they indie rock? – by illuminating their schizophrenic songwriting. “Poor Places” and “I Might” were early numbers, the first off of the band’s successful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the second from their newest album, The Whole Love. Both plodded along through the first bars, kept afloat by Tweedy’s mellow voice, before disintegrating into a barrage of crazy guitar riffs and electronic smoke and mirrors. What made the studio versions of these and the other songs performed throughout the night so agile and surprising became a force of sheer noise when driven across an entire field of fans. Again and again the case of the split personality came into play – the harmonies of “You Are My Face” illuminated the great songwriting techniques the band has perfected over years, only to tumble down into raucous guitar lines and crashing cymbals. “This is not a joke so please stop smiling,” Tweedy requested blithely in the opening bars of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – ultimately an impossible request as computer discharges from outer space crawled into the end of the number and infected Waterfront Park with a smorgasbord of digital nonsense. The electronic hiccups and scratchy samples continued to be sprinkled over John Stirratt’s actually tangible bass lines and Nels Cline’s supernatural guitar handiwork in “Handshake Drugs” and “War on War.” And what a guitarist Cline is, sounding shades of both Brian May and Jonny Greenwood with his aggressive yet limber technique. The undisputed highlight was “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” a song whose frankness of title was reflected gloriously in the defiant solo keyboard stylings of Mikael Jorgensen. Another highlight, at least for those on the blue side of the Kentucky-UofL divide, was Tweedy’s call to arms late in the show: “UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY ALUMNI… Salute!” Here was when drummer Glenn Kotche risked life and limb by standing behind the drum set, arms raised in the air, clutching his sticks, enveloped by fog and making his fellow captive Wildcats nearly brim over in ecstasy.
“We have time for just a few more” was the refrain of the night, despite the fact that no one in the audience seemed in a hurry to usher Tweedy and company off the stage. The atmosphere was too riveting, but it was also just cozy enough. A late “Happy Birthday” sing-along was offered in memory of Woody Guthrie, one of Tweedy’s musical idols, who would have turned 100 years old on July 14. But this was just a pit stop for the rolling train that is today’s incarnation of Wilco. If the band is showing its age by at last becoming comfortable in its own skin, what an intriguing mid-life crisis to be fortunate enough to witness.