Thursday, October 07, 2004

Wilco & the Fiery Furnaces/Radio City Music Hall/Oct. 6, 2004

Wilco & the Fiery Furnaces/Radio City Music Hall/6 October

Reviewed by Tim Carpenter

A few years back, a reviewer said of David Letterman that he seemed to be increasingly interested in creating a show that was for long-time David Letterman fans - and that the change was both for better and for worse.

I sensed the same thing happening with Wilco at Radio City: this was a show for hardcore fans.

I found it immensely entertaining and even enlightening, but I do wonder how it went over for the more casual listener who maybe has one or two of the band's records. In all of its various live incarnations (and there have been many), the band has always deftly updated and/or restructured songs from previous albums to fit their current stylistic mood.

On stage, the twang from the alt-country of the Uncle Tupelo discs and Wilco's "A.M." morphed easilyinto the Stonesy crunch of "Being There" and then into the Beatle/Beach Boy sunny-sad pop of "Summerteeth." But the last two records ("YankeeHotel Foxtrot" and "A Ghost is Born") have paradoxically both expanded the band's sonic vision and limited its live options somewhat.

The cacophony that the new six-man band creates for songs from the most recent work can't be so easily applied to earlier material; indeed, only songs from the three most recent records were played prior to the last encore.

The new textures - dense layers of keyboards and extra guitars, as well as noises from a PowerBook - are integral to the entirety of "Ghost" and much of "YHF," and the live presentations of those songs remained largely true to the records. But their retroactive application to other tunes is challenging, in both a good a bad sense. Good (great, actually) for people who have a strong familiarity with Wilco; bad, perhaps, for someone just wanting to check out and learn more about the band. When I say "strong familiarity," I mean knowing not only the records, but having seen at least a few live performances of various iterations of the band.

Wilco are now at a point where their musical and technological abilities enable - maybe even require - an internal dialogue that, naturally, expresses itself in the songs through the new layering and texturing. Now, on the one hand, that can mean a revelatory version of "Via Chicago," in which the swells of noise deepen the terror of the song in a wholly unexpected and disconcerting way. On the other hand, it can mean that most every song ends in a wash of feedback that, while not genericizing the tune, can make them seem less distinctive. At least that's what I thought when I tried to listen with a novice's ears (and I'd love feedback on this from anyone else who attended the show).

Beyond all that theoretical, career-arc stuff, though, Wilco kicked ass. Jeff Tweedy's voice is gaining in resonance and richness. He's also been working hard on his guitar playing, and it shows. Glenn Kotche's drumming continues to astound; it's the vital ingredient that not only sounds great on its own, but also provides structure for the rest of the band to switch effortlessly between virtual silence and a riveting wall of noise. They're clearly a superbly-rehearsed group, and that preparation opens up interesting possibilities for freedom and improvisation.

The sound was clear and crisp in Radio City, a venue which I'm ashamed to say I'd never been to before. The place is so spacious and the lines so long and graceful, it almost feels like an outdoor venue.

I knew nothing about the Fiery Furnaces going in, but I saw their entire set - a half-hour suite of numerous songs at various tempos with nary a break. For now, I'm reserving judgment. I wasn't blown away, but I certainly wasn't bored. And they showed great energy at a time when only about 10 percent of the crowd was seated.