February 13, 2016


Wilco's Music for Adulthood (PAUL ELIE, 2/13/06, The New Yorker)

Yes, Jeff: Wilco has exhibited progress. The rock group, born of the alt-country movement, is the mainstay of Nonesuch Records and the pride of Chicago. Wilco is to the music called Americana what the Eagles were to country rock: the group that at once perfected the style, transcended it, and got popular enough to push their old bandmates even further to the margins. Jeff Tweedy, for his part, is the overachiever of the words-and-guitar generation that includes Ben Harper, James McMurtry, David Gray, and PJ Harvey. Curating a music-and-arts festival at Mass MOCA, producing Mavis Staples's recent records, advising the National Poetry Foundation, making a solo record with his teen-age son on drums: the railroad man's son from Belleville, Illinois, has come far.

Progress isn't what the Kings Theatre show was about, though, and it's not what Wilco is about for its audience. More than any other group of guys with guitars playing now, Wilco--currently six members, after some changes over the years--has eluded the ideas of youth and age, rise and fall, early and late, breakup and comeback, that defined rock-and-roll careers since Elvis played Vegas and the Beatles started communicating with one another through their lawyers. Wilco is about continuity; it's music for the steady state of adulthood.

Wilco is Tweedy's long-term relationship, after the starter marriage that was Uncle Tupelo, the band he and Jay Farrar formed in Belleville in their late teens. Often described as "alt country," Uncle Tupelo was young men channelling old music--Depression-era country and blues--often on pre-war flattop guitars, mandolins, steel guitars, and so on. So when Tweedy turned to straightforward electric rock, after the band broke up, he seemed to get younger in the process. He founded Wilco in 1994, just when R.E.M. broke into the stadium circuit, with "Monster," and Bruce Springsteen and U2 began making records that, in effect, sampled their old ones and called it extending the mythology. There was an authenticity gap, and Tweedy filled it. Wilco, a group of adults, making music for adults, has kept it real into midlife.

That is why the audience roared when Tweedy took off his white hat. For many musicians of a certain age--think of Elvis Costello, or The Edge--a hat covers up advancing age and a receding hairline. But Tweedy, who is forty-eight, seems notably indifferent to how he looks: uncombed, unshaven, pallid, husky in baggy jeans and a denim jacket. The hat isn't a cover-up. It's the outsize piece of finery that sets him apart from his audience. When he takes it off, he is one of us: a person squarely in midlife who has time to do what he wants to do--and who is doing it.

Tough to beat this though.

Posted by at February 13, 2016 9:14 AM