Wilco’s sold-out show Tuesday at the Auditorium Theatre was originally set to coincide with the release of the band’s first live album, the two-disc Kicking Television (Nonesuch), but a manufacturing snag has pushed the release date back to November 15. Front man Jeff Tweedy says the live record, which is culled from a four-night stand at the Vic in May, is long overdue. “It’d been about ten years since Wilco started, and it seemed like this might be a nice way to have some sort of retrospective–kinda take a moment to look back, ’cause we really haven’t done a whole lot of that,” he says. “But in the end I don’t think that’s what it ended up being at all. It ends up sounding like the first record of the new lineup with [multi-instrumentalist] Pat [Sansone] and [guitarist] Nels Cline, and that’s what I’m most excited about.”
The 23-song track list for Kicking Television is weighted heavily toward 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and last year’s A Ghost Is Born. (“As a live band we’ve kind of designed ourselves around those last two records,” Tweedy says.) But there are also reworked, fuller, and often improved versions of older tunes like “Misunderstood” and “Via Chicago,” as well as a plaintive cover of “Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers),” a 70s funk track by Charles Wright. Sam Jones, who shot the band for the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, filmed the Vic shows for a proposed companion DVD, but that plan was eventually scuttled. “It just didn’t come out the way we wanted,” Tweedy says. “Some of the reasons were technical, some of it had to do with the way it was shot. The footage ended up being really claustrophobic. Basically, it gets down to my feeling that the audience should be a part of any live document. You should get a sense of the audience, a sense of the time and place. And the footage didn’t do that.”
A Ghost Is Born has now sold about 400,000 copies–100,000 less than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot–and won Grammys in February for best packaging and best alternative album. (The band had a show in Birmingham, Alabama, that night, and Tweedy criticized the awards in the local daily, saying, “I don’t have a lot of respect for the artists that have won Grammys.” But he’s softened his tone a bit since. “Certainly they don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean,” he says. “But I have to say I was kinda shocked at how it felt to win something like that. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like bringing home a really good report card to your parents, ’cause your mom and dad love that shit.”) Last month the band began working on a follow-up, tracking 13 songs at its Albany Park loft. Tweedy will spend most of November on a solo tour, then return home to record more with the band.
Tweedy doesn’t offer many specifics about the new music, though he notes that he’s been obsessively listening to late-60s and early-70s Brazilian psychedelic albums reissued by the German label Shadoks Music. “I’m not really sure where it’s all gonna end up heading right now,” he says. “It’s a place that feels really musical and not forced at all. At the same time I don’t know how to describe what it’s like, except that it sounds a lot different than what we’ve done before.”
The band’s lineup, however, has finally stabilized. Tweedy says the group’s current incarnation–Sansone, Cline, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen–will remain intact for the foreseeable future. “There are lots of reasons for that,” says Tweedy. “I’m probably more comfortable with myself than I’ve ever been, which has a lot to do with it. But as a band I don’t ever remember having this level of comfort. The level of collaboration is more intense and involved. It feels like there’s a lot more investment in the group.”
He adds that regular Wilco collaborator Jim O’Rourke, who recently left Sonic Youth, will work on the new record, and that Loose Fur, Tweedy’s side project with O’Rourke and Kotche, plans to release its second album on Drag City in the spring. And Golden Smog, the roots-rock supergroup featuring Tweedy, Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, and Dan Murphy of Soul Asylum, is slated to put out its first album since 1998.
For his 12-date solo tour, which includes two shows in the UK, Tweedy will debut a handful of new songs and play some Wilco favorites. He’s been known to play the occasional Uncle Tupelo chestnut at such gigs, though he might be disinclined to this time around. In a recent interview with Relix magazine, Jay Farrar laid the blame for the demise of Uncle Tupelo squarely on Tweedy, accusing him of making a pass at Farrar’s girlfriend (now his wife), Monica Groth, in the back of the group’s van while on tour in 1992. Farrar says he quit the band immediately and reluctantly rejoined. He left for good in 1994 during a confrontation where Farrar says Tweedy began “bullying” him. “His response was to call me a ‘pussy,’ and he continued to call me that over and over,” Farrar told Relix.
Tweedy’s staying tight-lipped about Farrar’s statements. “Oh, I’m definitely aware of all that,” he says. “But I just feel like all of those things are much better addressed privately between me and him.”
The concert at the Auditorium Theatre is a benefit for musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina, with proceeds going to the New Orleans Musician’s Relief Fund and the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans; a band featuring New Orleans musicians George French, Leroy Jones, Cranston Clements, Joe Krown, James Andrews, Alonzo Bowens, Brian Barberot, and Craig Klein will open. (Wilco has a few Crescent City ties: Stirratt is a New Orleans native, and Sansone lived and worked there for a decade shortly before joining the band in 2004.)
Tweedy hits the road a few days after the show to begin his solo tour in Madison, and Wilco will be in the studio through December. “After that we’ll probably be taking it slow through the rest of the winter, with some more recording here and there,” Tweedy says. “Ideally, we want to have the record done and out next year.”
Wilco, New Orleans Musician’s Relief Fund All Stars
When: Tue 11/1, 8 PM, sold out
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Segal.