I got to this show much earlier than I normally get to shows these days. I’ve always been a bit of an early arriver but my friend Mick and I both wanted to be fairly close and with GA at Red Rocks you need to arrive early in order to get good seats. Now, our seats weren’t super phenomenal front row type seats but were were in the 11th row which is pretty damn good. I’ve never fully understood why seeing the band is such an important component of a live show but it really is. There’s something about being so far from the stage that the band is just a vague impression of people somewhere off in the distance that really detracts from a show, in much the same fashion having someone taller than you block your view of the stage can be infuriating. It’s kind of an odd thing, that seeing matters almost as much as hearing. Anyway, on to the music.
I can’t help but feel like I should have liked The Punch Brothers more than I did. They have all the component parts that I love in a band, banjo, mandolin, guitar, violin, upright bass, it’s all there and they all play them exceptionally well but something is just amiss. Mick jokingly said that they have too many teeth to be a bluegrass band and in a way he’s right, they just don’t feel natural, they don’t seem as if they are playing what they want to play but rather they are playing what’s popular right now. They were all exceptional musicians and it would be impossible to find fault with any of their songs from a technical standpoint but in the end everything was just too sterile. Too clean. Music, live music especially should always be a little messy, no so messy as to distract, but it should be clear that what you’re playing is coming from your heart, that you’re passionate about it and I just didn’t get that from The Punch Brothers. The perfect example of this is a run that they did at the end of one of their songs, everyone got a little turn to solo as the song wound down and everything culminated in the lead singer/mandolin player playing the final note by tapping the bass with his foot. It was kind of charming but overall it just felt like something that they do at every show that sounds exactly the same every time. All in all it was really disappointing because I wanted to like them, I really did, but there was just something there that kept me from ever really getting in to what they were doing. Again, they weren’t bad, I don’t think anyone could say that they are bad but they are just missing a certain quality that makes live music go from technically perfect to great.
This was easily the best song they played, and it is a good song, but I still feel like it and they are just missing something:
Oh, Wilco, Wilco, Wilco, it’s been far far too long. It’s been at least two years since I last saw Wilco and I can’t believe it. This is partially because it’s been about two years since Wilco has come to town. They were in Boulder in January but I missed that show because I couldn’t afford it when it rolled around. That show was at The Boulder Theater which is a great small venue so I really wish I had gone. Especially after last night. For some reason I thought I was over Wilco, like my Wilco phase had somehow passed because I hadn’t been listening to their CDs lately and they just hadn’t been on my musical radar for a while. I knew they were good, hell Wilco was probably the first band I’ve ever considered myself a superfan of. I own their book, and I own both of their concert DVDs as well as Jeff Tweedy’s solo tour DVD. Yet somehow their extended absence from the state of Colorado made me forget them a bit. I didn’t even buy their new album when it came out around the beginning of the year. That is an oversight which I will soon be correcting.
I honestly don’t understand how I forgot how good they are. I’ve seen them five or six times and every single time I’ve been blown away by the music they make. They are a group that meshes so well together, that plays so well together that has so much feeling and passion in what they do that they just grab hold of you and take you wherever they want you to go. They carry you through joy and sadness, through heartswelling and heartbreaking romance. And you can’t help bug go along because they are doing everything so well that you just become entranced. A large part of their appeal is their front man Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy is, in my opinion, one of the best songwriters working today. He writes his songs with his heart on his sleeve and he delivers them in the same way. He’s not the kind of man who would ever be lauded for his beautiful singing voice but he sings with such passion that it doesn’t matter. I’d really rather see someone with a small vocal range sing with feeling than someone with a large range sing mechanically. Tweedy really never fails to deliver, but then again, neither does Wilco.
It’s actually very hard for me to believe that Wilco has been around, in one form or another, since 1995, that’s almost twenty years. I came on board, as I think a lot of fans did, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which quite surprisingly is ten years old this year. The only constants from their original line up are Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt and they’ve come a long long way from the simple Alt-Country band that they once were. The musical growth that they have had over the years is one of the reasons that I love them so much. As a group, they’ve never been afraid to try new things, to break from their traditional mold and make the music that they want to make at any given time. This has made their sound eclectic but it’s also made it better. It’s also given them the flexibility to change up their songs and breathe new life into them. The perfect example of this is the song Spiders which is normally a hard rocking show closing number with lots of guitar riffs and heavy drums, last night they played a soft simple acoustic guitar focused version of spiders that was beautiful. It was the exact same song and yet an entirely different one all at once. Bands should never be afriad to take a chance like this, it’s your song if you want it to sound a little different do it.
I loved everything I heard last night, even the songs from the new album I wasn’t familiar with. Wilco has reached a point, like I guess any band with almost twenty years of history would, where they have enough material to craft wholly unique show from night to night. They can play an entirely different set list every night if they choose and that fact maked me really wish that I had bought tickets to both of their shows at Red Rocks. Sadly I didn’t so I’ll have to live off this one show for now.
Should I close with one bit of randomness and one complaint? Ye, yes I think I should. First, on the last song of their second and final encore they played Hoodoo Voodoo and were accompanied by a random shirtless man playing the cowbell. It…well it kind of looked like a random vagrant had joined them on stage but the band seemed happy with his presence so I guess it was okay. The complaint, the drummer had a gong, a freaking gong, and it went totally to waste. It was played once during the last song and that’s it. If you have a gong, a giant heavy gong, use it. It just seems wrong to make your roadies load and unload that thing every night for one damn song. Mick’s theory was that the shirtle3ss cowbell player was the roadie in charge of the gong and that his antics were some kind of atonement for making him haul the gong. I have no reason to believe that this is true but this is true in every way and 100% factual.
Two songs in closing, first one of my all time favorite opening lines:
And second, well there so much to choose from so I’m going to just go with one of favorites which they also played last night: