First, a confession: I have an artsy-craftsy side. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise—after all, I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. You can't really grow up somewhere like Portland without some of its cultural, um, "quirkiness" rubbing off on you. If you’ve seen the new IFC series "Portlandia," you know exactly what I’m talking about (it's a must-see for Oregonians and non-Oregonians alike, in my opinion.) One of my favorite episodes, “Put a Bird On It,“ illustrates that quirk factor to perfection. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.
Anyway, it’s true, I love the arts in all forms. Musically, I was raised on the Beatles. My sister Sue and I used to go down to our basement and lip sync to whatever the newest Beatles record was at the time. She usually got to be Paul, and I would have to settle for Ringo. (Come to think of it, why’d I pick Ringo when John was available?) My love for the Beatles stayed strong through my early teenage years, but then came the 70s with bands such as CCR, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, America, as well as the whole southern rock movement (the Allman Brothers Band, etc.). I was crazy about them all. The late 70s and early 80s probably deserve a separate post altogether (a cautionary tale about the dangers of polyester and disco), as this was the period when my musical tastes really began to expand. Through it all, though, no matter what else caught my ear, I always came back to the Beatles. They were my bread and butter.
Over the years since then, my kids have led me to a wide range of musical styles and artists. These days I really like The Decemberists, The Red River, Kurt Vile, The Raconteurs, Midlake, Local Natives, Band of Horses, Pinback and a long list of others, which brings me to the idea behind this post. A few years ago my son Chad told me that I might like this one particular band—one whose name sounded, to me, more like a brand of refrigerator than a music group. “Wilco,” they were called. He said they had all sorts of 70s soft rock and other classic rock influences going on (“Dad Rock,” in other words). I was intrigued—I fit the fatherly profile after all. He bought me a couple of their albums (Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and I gave them a listen. And with Wilco that’s all it takes—one good listen and you're hooked, end of story. I bought Sky Blue Sky soon after and wore that album out, too. I couldn’t get enough.
Then, in February of 2008, Chad called and invited Nanc and I to Chicago, where he, his wife Mindy, and our first grandchild, Finn, were living at the time (Chad was getting his Master’s degree at the University of Chicago). He said we should try to visit the same week Wilco would be playing the Riviera (it was apparently part of a five night stand and they’d be playing their entire catalogue). How could I say no? I mean, seeing Wilco in their hometown, at a Chicago landmark no less? This seemed like a no-brainer, so we did it. It’s tough to put into words the experience of seeing them live. “Fun” doesn’t really cut it—maybe “electrifying” would be better. Yeah, electrifying. Wow! I’ve been to a few concerts in my day, but nothing like this. Man, Jeff Tweedy—that guy is the real deal. He’s just…a dude, you know? I mean that as a compliment. Not many other creative geniuses seem as stable and down-to-earth as Jeff Tweedy. I realize that a band’s creative output is sometimes enhanced by the frontman’s (or frontwoman’s) eccentricities. And, it’s true, sometimes an off-kilter view of the world can lead to unique and memorable art. I get that. But Jeff Tweedy proves it doesn’t always have to be that way. He has an amazing ability to create music that resonates with a huge range of people without being someone that’s impossible for regular folks to relate to.
To me, Wilco isn’t just a throwback to classic rock; they are classic rock, often doing it even better than those who influenced them in the first place. I can’t really explain this in musical or technical terms, so let me illustrate with an example. I had a business meeting a few days ago, and as I walked in I heard some familiar music playing in the background. My first thought was, “Hey, that’s cool, they’re playing some Wilco.” But then, after a few seconds, I realized it was a Beatles song from Abbey Road. It caught me by surprise—I couldn’t believe how much they sounded like each other. And that gave me an idea.
I decided to make a Wilco-Beatles playlist (Beatco, I called it) on my iPhone. With the meeting about to start, I hurriedly picked out songs from Abbey Road, Magical Mystery Tour (“Strawberry Fields”), Sgt. Pepper (“Getting Better”) and mixed them in with tracks from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sky Blue Sky, Summerteeth (“She’s a Jar”), and Wilco, the Album ("Wilco"). I got it together just in time for our lunch break, went out to my car and popped in my newly created Beatco album. That afternoon, on the drive home after the meeting, more Beatco. Running errands later that afternoon—more Beatco. Needless to say, it was amazing. Maybe the best playlist of all time.
A few thoughts hit me during “Heavy Metal Drummer.” They were confirmed after listening again to the “Impossible Germany”-“Polythene Pam”- “You Are My Face”-“She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”-“Sky Blue Sky”-“Golden Slumbers”-“Hate It Here”-“Carry That Weight”-“On And On” portion of the playlist. Here’s what I realized, plain as day:
1. Beatco was the album that Abbey Road wishes it was.
2. Jeff Tweedy has the voice Sir Paul wishes he had.
3. Nels Cline is the session guitarist the Beatles should have had. I mean, c’mon, have you heard those solos on Sky Blue Sky? Put him on some Beatles albums and we’d be talking about Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, BB King, Duane Allman, and Nels Cline. And not necessarily in that order.
So there you have it. That’s my Wilco story. “Dad Rock”? Maybe. “More Classic than Most Classic Rock”? Definitely.