The roughly one-half of the audience who did not make it to their seats to see Califone open for Wilco at the Jubilee Auditorium on Tuesday night did themselves a great disservice. Sure, I understand the show started at the uncommonly early hour of 7:30, but Califone is one band that is worth throwing back the rest of that cocktail and hustling to your seats to see.
They're from Chicago after all. Everyone knows that there is something in the water in the windy city, that makes musicians eschue any hint of formulaic sound. Expect unabashed experimentation supported by solid musicianship.
That's exactly what Califone delivered. Rapidly establishing themselves as indie darlings, Califone makes music that is dense and diverse, a beautiful hypnotic melange of rich layers, vibrant percussion and melodic fuzz. It's perhaps fitting that Califone's music has been described as cinematic, as the band has been known to perform live improvised music to accompany silent films. Recently they have produced a feature length film (written by Califone vocalist and primary songwriter, Tim Rutili). All My Friends are Funeral Singers shares many of the same characters and images that populate their most recent album of the same name, and has been selected for a showing at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
I loved Califone's set, was swept into a rhythmic trance by the music, and particularly enjoyed watching the old hippie guy grooving on the maracas.
When Wilco took to the stage, it was with a touch of humour that spoke to the band's self-awareness of their status as one of the most revered and influencial alt-rock bands performing today. With Olympic-sounding fanfare, the members swooped onto the stage one by one, while a disembodied electronic voice announced each man. It was fun, and it set the tone for an evening with a band who is well aware of their status and their elevated level of musical prowess, but who don't take themselves overly seriously.
Wilco has been in their current incarnation for about six years now, and the lengthy pedigree of solid musicianship is completely undeniable. Wilco just keeps getting better and stronger each time I see them play, their concerts bringing to mind a high-performance automobile - tight and strong and precise. But of course that cohesion comes as a result of the incredible talent that each member of the band brings.
On Tuesday night, Wilco played as a single entity, but there were also great breakthrough moments when the spotlight shone on individual members. I am always amused by multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone's showmanship; his rock star stances are showy but have more than a hint of self-mockery. Probably the most telling of the spotlight moments came following guitarist Nels Cline's simply gobsmacking flights of fancy during the song Impossibly Germany. The audience jumped to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation to acknowledge his guitar wizardry, certainly something that I have never before witnessed in the middle of a performance.
Watching the band perform such masterpieces of experimentalism as Spiders (Kidsmoke), where each member seems to veer off onto their own noise path, only to bring to all back to a cohesive piece in the end, really illuminated the strength that Wilco has in unifying seemingly disparate elements into something noisy but glorious. On the opposite end of the musical spectrum, the gorgeous harmonies of You Are My Face and the stark heartbreak of Radio Cure spoke to the country sensibilities of the band and the diversity that they have mastered.
Wilco did not play selections from their new album, Wilco (the Album), nearly as much as I would have expected, instead playing a setlist that nicely spanned their entire considerable discography. The crowd, of course, loved this, especially the blond woman a couple of rows over who seat-danced with outstretched arms during the older ones like Shot in the Arm and Heavy Metal Drummer.
And when we were invited to supply the vocals for Jesus Etc, we did indeed sing more than the mandatory first verse and, according to Jeff Tweedy, we were better than Edmonton too. But only slightly. If Wilco is coming to your town, especially if Califone opens, I would suggest you get those tickets now. Even if they do make you sing for it.