Jeff Tweedy and co kick off this year's Larmer Tree event with their characteristic warmth
If you don’t know Wilco, you likely know of Wilco. If only because calling someone a Wilco fan has become a kind of pejorative, one levied against the beer-bellied, tote-wielding ilk of Guardian Dads who’ll tell you music ain’t what it used to be: “Ugh, I bet he listens to Wilco!” Etc.
But the Chicago group is one of the most consistent or at least long-running American indie rock institutions, with 13 studio albums and plenty of historical drama (see Sam Jones’s 2002 exposé on the making of their tumultuous opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Maybe that means expectations for their live show are high, or maybe the statute of limitations has expired and they can get away with anything. It’s a bit of both, honestly, depending on who you ask.
The band headlines the Woods stage on night one of End Of The Road 2023, following a wonderfully chaotic Deerhoof set. It’s been raining all day. Our jeans are caked in gloopy mud. We need some rootsy, rollicking Americana to towel us off. ‘Handshake Drugs’ does just that – the rain literally does stop – as the song moves from a few diffidently strummed acoustic chords to a wall of joyful, major-key noise that, among other things, showcases lead guitarist Nels Cline’s incredible restraint.
A head taller than everyone else and resembling from afar the late, great Tom Verlaine (he even plays the same guitar), Cline will stand dead still for several minutes before jolting into action, the monster to Jeff Tweedy’s Frankenstein, as though Tweedy has telepathically granted him permission to, frankly, lose it.
Nowhere is that more compelling than on ‘Impossible Germany’, the sprawling centrepiece of every live set. If the protracted instrumental jams are where most Wilco acquaintances and newcomers wander towards the beer tent, ‘Impossible Germany’ is the one that might get them onside, its duelling guitars slicing up the Dorset countryside like razors dropped from the heavens.
That said, the band are at their best when they cut the shit and play those upbeat, beautifully fucked-up pop singalongs whose lyrics are darker than you remembered: ‘A Shot in the Arm’ from Summerteeth; ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ from Yankee; ‘Hummingbird’ from A Ghost is Born.
Strangely, these old favourites demystify the lukewarm albums the band has released over the past decade-ish. Because the skeletons of the newer songs – “Evicted” from the forthcoming new album, and the two back-to-back cuts from last year’s Cruel Country – are kinda the same as always, something that’s especially apparent in a live context. John Stirratt’s bass playing remains so dependable, so unswerving, that it makes sense he’s been with Tweedy since day one. As for Tweedy: he’s still an endearingly middling singer, croaking and cracking his way through the greatest hits setlist – just how we like it – and he’s no less adept at crafting flawless melodies that rise and fall in all the right places.
It resumes raining, aptly, during the outro of the final song, ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’, as if to say that’s enough for now. The Guardian Dads are getting tired, and it’s no mean feat to reconcile your past glories with the reality of your present.