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Big men on campus: Wilco at Union College. Photo by Martin Benjamin

Getting There

Union College, April 27

The evening held promise. A swollen moon lit the grand old lawns and buildings of Union College and seemed to point the way to the Memorial Chapel and its polished pews. Wilco were in town, after all, and even the most cynical had to come in out of the spring chill and see what leader Jeff Tweedy had to offer. This week had finally seen the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a sonically adventurous album that continued Wilco’s move away from its alt-country roots into a pop stratosphere cluttered with the detritus of modern living. The group’s refusal to make changes to the album and subsequent separation from their major label had made strong copy for nearly half a year, and the album’s mystique grew as it sat in label purgatory and was repeatedly downloaded off the Web.

Wilco took the stage with little pomp, Tweedy looking like a petulant schoolboy in cropped hair and a school sweater with shirt collars poking out. By the second number, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the foursome began to unfold the tricked-up world of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Something was amiss, however. The past year had seen the departure of invaluable multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and longtime drummer Ken Coomer. The loss of Bennett, in particular, was painfully felt, though Leroy Bach, once a guest utility player, had stepped bravely forward. (The only longtime Wilco member aboard was ever faithful bassist John Stirratt, a Tweedy sideman since the sepia-toned days of Uncle Tupelo.)

Early on, the group had a hard time catching their stride. It was a challenge on several levels: Certainly there was that gnawing gap left by Bennett. Also there was the venue, which lost many of Bach’s keyboard nuances in some high, holy rafter. The problem was compounded by the avant-garde nature of a lot of the YHF songs. The album, a fine one at that, works well as a “piece” or an overall work. However, a Wilco audience comes out for “songs,” and stripped of the studio sweetening of post-classicist Chicago producer Jim O’Rourke, it was hard to locate the heart at the center of many of the YHF tunes.

Not to be discouraged, the audience carried Tweedy and Co. on their collective shoulders, hundreds of designer eyeglass frames nodding sagely as the group, bottom heavy and striking the occasional sour note, doggedly presented large chunks of their masterpiece. The crowd even cheered the smallest flourishes, as when Tweedy offered a few limp harmonica notes during 1999’s “She’s a Jar.”

The group pulled together toward the end of the main set, finishing off “I’m the Man Who Loves You” with a storm of wailing guitars and pounding drums. The band succeeded most, however, when the songs allowed Tweedy’s sackcloth rasp enough space to breathe, and the intimacy of Tweedy’s pipes on the set closers “Ashes of American Flags” and “Reservations” salvaged the night. The encores found Wilco renewed, with Jeff even pattering with the audience a bit (though, from all reports, he’s asked the “Did you download our record?” question at most tour stops).

Nevertheless, the only moments that neared the live majesty of old were a pair of tracks off the Mermaid Avenue project and some refreshing barroom rockers from 1996’s Being There. The crowd lapped up a triumphant “California Stars,” raising their voices in song as the number faded out on Bach’s gloriously crashing piano keys. But just as Wilco raised spirits by revisiting their rootsier history, they dove willfully back into rock avant-gardisms, polishing off several songs with a heady brew of furious guitar skronk. And as the sawing, moaning, and thunder subsided on the final song, people once again hit the spring chill. An undergrad lighting a cigarette perhaps put a period on the night with his own double-edged review: “That was sick, dude.”

—Erik Hage

Costume and Effect

Saratoga Winners, April 26

Bands in costumes usually bug me a lot, in large part because most of them don’t bother to explain exactly why they’re dressed the way they are. I mean, I dig Kiss and everything, but usually about two-thirds of the way through their concerts, I start thinking “OK, I get what they’re supposed to be . . . but what, precisely, are a space alien, a demon, a star and a cat doing up there on stage together?

And it gets even worse for me when it comes to the nü-skül-metal mask bands like Slipknot or Mushroomhead or Mudvayne. I think the stupidest, most pointless thing I’ve ever seen onstage at a rock concert, for instance, was the idiot in Slipknot with the sex toy for a nose crouching on a pile of drums that he wasn’t playing, shaking his nasal money-maker at the crowd, booga booga. Pointless and dumb. And pointless some more.

Which, I suppose, Gwar are too, but at least they’ve got a concept of sorts to explain why they’re dressed the way they are, and they’ve been nothing if not consistent in adhering to that concept over the years. See, the idea is that a marauding band of pirate aliens called the Scumdogs of the Universe were banished for their affronts to Earth, the most godforsaken ball of dung in the known universe. After killing the dinosaurs, creating humans, and sinking Atlantis, the Scumdogs were imprisoned underneath the Antarctic ice for millions of years—until being dug up by promoter Sleazy P. Martini and put on the road as Gwar, the rock & roll band to end all rock & roll bands.

Thing is, though, that Gwar’s members—singer Oderus Urungus, guitarists Flattus Maximus and Balsac Jaws of Death, bassist Beefcake the Mighty and drummer Jizmak da Gusha—like making rock music, but they like massacring their onstage enemies even more, usually resulting in copious quantities of bodily-fluid-colored goo being projected into the audience.

Terrifically offensive, you bet, but you shoulda seen the 800 people packed in the room screaming and pushing and jumping, hoping to get some (simulated) viscera tossed their way. Pretty much exactly like the half-dozen other Gwar shows that I’ve seen over the years, with a couple of exceptions that only the converted would have noticed: Longtime Gwar woman Slymenstra Hyman was absent (she’s got her own freak-based road gig now, called Slymenstra’s Girlie Show), as were Sleazy P. Martini and the Sexecutioner. (Bummer, huh?) And I couldn’t tell, in the murk, whether it was Techno-Destructo or Bozo-Destructo who came out to pull off the top of Oderus’ skull at the end of the set. I’ll bet a lot of others lost sleep over that, too.

But, troubling, unresolved questions aside, Gwar put on yet another great show, equal parts Nickelodeon Slime Time, Grand Guignol atrocity exhibition and World Wrestling Federation cage match. Oh . . . and the music? Well, uh, it was loud, and there were guitars and stuff and, um, it was loud. I’ll pay better attention to it next time, honest.

—J. Eric Smith

Americana Masters

Greg Brown, Jeff Lang
Eighth Step at Cohoes Music Hall, April 27

“Man, this place is cool,” opener Jeff Lang exclaimed, admiring the faded old-world charm of the Cohoes Music Hall. “I love the Muppet boxes.”

As it happened, the private boxes—the Muppet boxes—were unoccupied, holding not a single grumpy old soft-sculpture critic. And based on audience reaction, you couldn’t have found a grouch in the house anywhere. Honestly, accustomed to rock crowds as I am, I found it almost unsettling—but that’s another story.

Not to say that Lang didn’t deserve the rapt attention. Wielding a blindingly shiny National steel resonator, the Australian displayed a familiarity with the guitar styles of the American delta region that was beyond enviable. Lang picked and flailed a remarkable range of melodic lines and textural tones, singing of wanderlust and love gone wrong, coming across like a less-haunted Chris Whitley or a grittier Luka Bloom. It’s no insult to either Lang’s guitar playing or singing—which were formidable—to point to his abilities as an arranger as the highlight of his set. Sure, he was up there by himself, but his intuitive use of foot stomps and the guitar as a percussive instrument filled out his sound in a subtle but dramatic way that drew cheers for individual fills as if they were jazz solos.

Lang was good enough, in fact, that I questioned the wisdom of having him as an opening act. See, I’d never seen Greg Brown live—I now know how goofy the concern was.

Brown probably could have commanded the stage out of sheer intimidation if he had wanted: Sunglassed, earringed, goateed, shaved-headed, sleeveless, deeply baritoned and well over 6 feet tall, he looked and sounded more like Sylvester Stallone’s idealized version of himself than a legendary folky. But appearances can be deceiving, and Brown’s performance was as warm, unassuming and inviting as a log-cabin fireside.

Supported by Lang—who proved as good a sideman as he had a soloist—Brown unfolded his set, like slowly pulling a worn and favored blanket up over the audience. His voice has all the rumbling charm of farmhouse’s settling floorboards, and his easy observational humor has more of the tall tale about it than it has biting satire. More than one song, for example, had as its subject the simple pleasure of a really good cup of coffee (“It’s like my mom told me, ‘Don’t trust them that drink only tea,’ Brown quipped.) Love songs were well-represented, but those too had Brown’s own stamp: “When you pull on that pitiful, raggedy-ass cotton nightgown . . .” he crooned in a hilarious but unironic and sweet hayseed version of a Barry White come-on. And even when Brown got mean, it was done with such good spirit, that the audience laughed and said their own “Hallelujah, amen” that InaBell—who killed her husband Pete, “screamed and hollered him to death with her helium woodpecker voice”—is finally, sweet Jesus, dead.

—John Rodat

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