From about 2002-2007, Wilco meant more to me than any other manifestation of popular culture. Wilco had been part of my life before, but in this time the band mattered in a way it didn't before and hasn't since. I had learned of Uncle Tupelo right before its demise, and loved the Anodyne album. For that reason I eagerly bought the first records by both Son Volt (Jay Farrar's band) and Wilco (Jeff Tweedy's), both coming out in 1995. That first Son Volt record is by far the better one, but Farrar could never best it, while the double that came next year from Wilco, Being There, was an exhilarating great step forward. The roots-rock elements remained, but songs like "Misunderstood" had something more experimental behind them. That experimentation really flowered on 1999's Summerteeth, an album I had a harder time relating to. The fact that the band's next album had been rejected by the record company intrigued me.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, October 2001 and April 2002
I first heard ripped versions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001 before buying an official copy in 2002. That album was a complete revelation. I listened to it over and over and over and over again. In that strange post-9/11 time amidst the increasing drumbeats for war, its songs seemed to make sense of the fear and emptiness at the heart of the national condition. The fact that the record company had dropped Wilco over this album made it all the more glorious to listen to, a validation that "they" were wrong-headed and stupid, and "we" were ultimately right. This album was like medicine for the soul. During my year studying abroad in Germany, when I was mostly alone day after day, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a comfort, especially amidst the quiet dread of a German Sunday morning. It is difficult for me to even listen to this album again because the associations are so intense. That mostly has to do with "Heavy Metal Drummer," a song that would get played at grad school barbecues after my more musical friends had brought out their guitars. It's a song about not being able to recapture the heedless abandon of youth, and little did I know as I sang along with my friends, I was living in my own golden days.
"War on War," Late Show With David Letterman, April 2002
October 27, 2002 (Foellinger Auditorium)
In the fall of 2002 I was ecstatic that Wilco would be playing a gig on campus in the same giant lecture hall where I was a TA during the week. I bought the tickets the day they came out, and ended up in the lower level maybe ten rows back. At this point Jay Bennett had been jettisoned from the band, Leroy Bach was still in it, and Pat Sansone and Nels Cline had yet to join. The anticipation before the show was palpable in the audience; everyone there had been absorbing the new album for months. I was not disappointed. This was perhaps the best rock show I've ever been to. I was hearing amazing material that was still fresh by a band at the height of their powers and giving it their all. Tweedy was still willing to play some of the older stuff, so I got to hear the rip-roaring "Casino Queen" live, a great thrill. I left that auditorium that night on a high, my expectations more than surpassed. I've been chasing that feeling at every other show I've been to since.
May 3, 2003 (Southern Illinois University)
My circle of friends in grad school was similarly Wilco-crazed, and when one of my friends announced that they would be playing an outdoor show over a hundred miles south in Carbondale, we road-tripped down for it. It was a beautiful spring day, sunny but not hot, with a gentle breeze. The show was a little loose, and a lot of the students there weren't hardcore fans. Tweedy was a little jokey, giving the proceedings a fun, tossed off vibe. They even played "New Madrid," a song from Tweedy's Uncle Tupelo days about predictions of earthquakes on the New Madrid fault, perhaps a nod to concert's location. This was the same line up as before, Kotche-Tweedy-Bach-Stirratt, but with Mikail Jourgensen and his laptop lurking in the background. I like remembering this trip, and the spontaneity of my 20s, so long ago.
A Ghost Is Born, July 2004
My aforementioned year abroad in Germany, where I was doing my doctoral research, ended in July of 2004. A Ghost Is Born was released right before I left, I remember reading a review of it in a Berlin culture magazine maybe two days before my flight home. I picked it up immediately after getting stateside. I listened to this one a lot alone, as I had been hired by my advisor as a house sitter that summer. The heavy Neil Young guitar on "Guess That's What You Said" kinda shocked me, but I grew to love a lot of the songs very quickly, including "Company in My Back," "Late Greats," "Handshake Drugs," "Spiders," and "Muzzle of Bees." If I strip away the layers of memory that these albums carry with them and try to evaluate them objectively, I think A Ghost Is Born just might edge out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I still have one very vivid memory of this album: as I was driving back to Illinois from a job interview in Michigan in May of 2006, "Company in My Back" came on somewhere south of Kankakee. As the impossibly flat prairies beneath the unending sky stretched out before me, it seemed like the most perfect song in the world at exactly that moment.
August 2, 2004 (Eagles Ballroom)
Only a month after being back in the States, I trekked up to Milwaukee with a friend (and his parents) to see Wilco live at an old ballroom downtown. It was an interesting night, as I walked down one of Milwaukee's hills on our way to a place to get dinner, I passed right by Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, who was chatting with someone on the sidewalk outside of a hotel. (I guess he must have been playing a show there, too.) This was also my first time seeing the current Wilco lineup, without Bach and with Cline and Sansone. The guitar pyrotechnics were certainly impressive in this show, and I do remember Tweedy doing a couple of power jumps with his guitar on "Spiders (Kidsmoke)." However, the old bash and sass I had witnessed before was gone, a relic of the 90s now put away.
February 8, 2005 (Foellinger Auditorium)
This concert was a tad disillusioning. I was back at Foellinger on a cold and dark night, but in the balcony instead of close to the stage. The show wasn't bad by any means, but not inspiring, either. That changed in the encores, which were amazing. Tellingly, the band revived "Kingpin" off of Being There, and really nailed it. They also played a bitchin' cover of "Don't Fear The Reaper."
Dinner With Jay Bennett (sometime in 2005-2006)
One of my friends was a close friend of the now departed Jay Bennett. I can't quite place the exact date, but I did in fact get to have dinner with Jay Bennett. He was in the area doing some production work at a new studio in a nearby town, and my friend and his spouse decided to have Jay and a few other folks over for dinner. Needless to say, I was a little more than starstruck. Turns out that he was a very friendly and gregarious guy, full of some funny stories a couple of which I still remember. I felt lucky just to have met the guy, but this made me especially sad at his passing, and at the impression you get of him from the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart Documentary.
Sky Blue Sky, May 2007
This album is the point at which my Wilco obsession began to simmer down into mere love and affection. This was fitting, since I had graduated with my PhD in 2006, and had trekked off to Michigan to work as a visiting assistant professor. Around that time my life had become much more difficult, having moved to a new place and working a job that was both demanding and unrewarding. This album did not make a huge impression on me when I first heard it. I didn't think it was bad, in fact it was good, but it was definitely not great. I probably like it more now than then, mostly because "Impossible Germany" has grown on me a great deal.
I've liked the other albums since then too, especially the self-titled one, but Wilco hasn't and can never mean what it did in that time roughly between 2002 and 2006. It's probably not coincidental that I reached age thirty at that point. Nevertheless, when I listen to a song like "Heavy Metal Drummer" I am transformed, sent back to a time in my life when I was young but poor, living the life of the mind with some amazing friends. While I am pretty damn happy nowadays, sometimes I wish I could go back to my Wilco days for just one of them.