With their pads, pens and pensive expressions, music journalists are an easy group to spot at any concert. And, at the Santa Barbara Bowl, picking the journalists out of the crowd is made even easier by the fact that they tend to be seated in a single row. Of course, this confluence of cooler-than-thou critics creates what can only be termed a sort of gestalt of the reporters’ row, where the unspoken code of conduct requires silence, stillness and the kind of objective appearance that precludes one from ever actually participating in the usual singing, dancing, chanting, clapping and arm waving that occurs at a show. Over the course of the entire summer, and after attending concerts ranging from Snow Patrol to the Beastie Boys, I can confidently say that I have only really seen the reporters’ row deviate from its implicit lack of participation in the concert-going experience once – at last Sunday’s performance by Wilco.
With a lineup that seems to change with every new album the band records and a sound that is nothing if not constantly evolving, it’s no surprise that Wilco has a broad and diverse fan base. Its music veers seamlessly from its alt-country roots to experimental electronic rock, and meanders through almost every style in between – sometimes even doing so during the course of a single song. As a result, Sunday’s show attracted one of the bowl’s most diverse crowds ever, with the requisite hipsters mingling with middle-aged professionals and even one toddler half-teetering and half dancing on the seat in front of me throughout the band’s set.
During the two hour set, Wilco played an equally diverse mix of music – ranging from “Too Far Apart” off their debut album A.M. to “Side With The Seeds” off of the band’s most recent release, Sky Blue Sky. Highlights of the set included the surfeit of solos by Jeff Tweedy, John Stirrat, Nels Kline and Pat Sansone, who played acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass, maracas, keys and even what looked like an electric slide guitar between the four of them. Combine all that with drummer Glenn Kotche’s inimitable skills and showmanship and Mikael Jorgensen’s proficient piano-playing and flair with the synthesizer, and you have what was, quite possibly, one of the best shows to hit the SB Bowl all summer.
Standout solos included the guitar and bass-driven harmonies on “Impossible Germany” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” as well as Kotche’s killer drumming during “Via Chicago.” The band also showcased a more pared down simplicity in songs like “Hate It Here” and “Hummingbird,” which demonstrated the delicate balance between folksy familiarity and poetic craftsmanship that goes into almost all of Wilco’s lyrics and instrumentals.
Proving themselves to be consummate performers, the band’s members engaged the crowd throughout their set, with the palpable, crackling energy of the bowl coming to a head at Tweedy’s request that the entire audience clap in time. While the sounds of clapping began to echo throughout the packed bowl, Tweedy proclaimed, “I know it’s a simple thing, clapping in time at a rock concert, but it’s a start. . .We’re going to work together and we’re going to start now. . . If you can clap in time together without assistance as a big group, think of everything you could accomplish. You could build pyramids for the poor.” And, as the sound of clapping came to a deafening crescendo, it was clear that this statement – more than anything else – perfectly summed up the blend of hip, witty irreverence and sweet, starry-eyed idealism that is Wilco.
The band ended its set with a stirring rendition of “The Lonely 1,” but it was “California Stars” that provided the most memorable musical moment of the concert. Played under the actual California stars, the song itself became a metaphor for the evening – magically meandering but tightly melodious, unaffected but intensely affecting and ultimately as mellow as it was moving. Even the critics were swaying blissfully, all posturing and pretense momentarily assuaged by one of the greatest groups ever to grace the bowl’s stage. Who needs objectivity, when there are still bands like Wilco out there proving that rock-star worship is not only alive but sometimes very well-deserved?