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Wilco makes alt-country go pop and lives to tell the tale

Earlier this month, John Stirratt, bassist for Chicago indie rock darlings Wilco, did it for the first time.

It was his civil duty, really. Unlike most "firsts," people usually hope for rejection during this particular rite of passage. When it came to being selected for jury duty, however, Stirratt got the seal of approval. "It was actually pretty interesting, a good slice of Chicago life, you know," he says of his first brush with the judicial process. He says the case involved a "FedEx thing, pot interdiction." "Really interesting," he adds, "because I'm really into decriminalization."

It wasn't the first time that Stirratt and the rest of Wilco became entwined in a legal hotbed. In 2002, Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy bought back their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Warner Bros. Records after one of its imprints, Reprise, deemed it unmarketable. They then proceeded to make the entire album available for download on their Website. It was a bold move, especially in an era when free P2P programs such as Limewire.com are costing record labels and musicians significant chunks of change.

Wilco: Heroes of rock critics, bane of seat warmers
Anton Corbijn
Wilco: Heroes of rock critics, bane of seat warmers

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performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 17. Tickets cost $25. Call 954-946-2402.
Pompano Beach Amphitheater, 1806 NE 6th St, Pompano Beach.

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Amidst the RIAA's piracy crackdowns and Metallica's tough talk, however, a funny thing happened to Wilco. After the orphaned tracks moved swiftly onto desktops and MP3 players, Warner Bros. bought the orphaned album back under one of its other imprints, Nonesuch. Despite all the prior downloads, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went gold anyway and has become Wilco's biggest mainstream success.

In a 2003 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Liz Phair commented on her own highly criticized transition from fierce, blowjob-obsessed rocker chick to over-the-hill Avril Lavigne: "I didn't want to be some Nineties act that was great in my twenties and never did anything else. People are, like, öDon't be commercial, then. Just be ... Wilco.'" Unlike Phair, however, Wilco's latest album, A Ghost Is Born, shows you can be unconventional and constantly evolve without committing the unforgivable act of "selling out."

Critically acclaimed, A Ghost Is Bornmade an infinite number of "Best of 2004" lists without mimicking its acclaimed predecessor. Ghostis probably one of the band's more unprocessed, straightforward albums, as its songs seem to breathe and stretch with the whispered pillow talk of Generation X and unhurried instrumentals. "Wishful Thinking" comes in with the soft noise of jungles and thunderstorms, the kind of stuff you'd want to have on one of those Brookstone sleep machines; while the sound of clacking bamboo, reminiscent of Blonde Redhead's "A Cure," introduces "Company in My Back." Ghost's stripped-down production and calculated attentiveness to space and sound separates it from Foxtrot, creating a more spontaneous work.

"You tend to want to correct previous mistakes and not make the same record twice," says Stirratt when asked what the band wanted to accomplish with Ghost. "[Foxtrot] didn't have a very ... kind of ... organic, live sound sometimes, so we thought it might be nice to have a more live-sounding record. We also didn't want to go in and immediately start building tracks or just start to play; we wanted to incorporate a lot more improv, more free-forms of whatever snippets of songs or melodies or chords we had, just exercises and trying to get away from the whole step A to step B formula. We just wanted to be a little more playful, to just try songs in different ways and see if we got anything out of it."

It is Wilco's ability to turn an "experiment" into something both fun and intelligent that draws fans to their shows. Unlike other musicians, who have been forced to rely on pimped-out performances -- more costume changes, more pyrotechnics, more flat screens -- worthy of a $75-plus ticket, Wilco consistently draws lines around the block without much more than their instruments.

"We've always put the emphasis on the music and on the band and how the songs are presented, and I think that's why the live thing has always been so great for us," says Stirratt. A good show, after all, is how most wannabe musicians get the crazy idea of starting a rock band in the first place.

"I just went nuts," Tweedy told Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune music critic's 2004 Wilco biography, Learning How to Die, of a high school punk/New Wave outfit called the Plebes, the first rock band he saw play live. "Danced like a freakin' idiot ... I had never been attacked by a garage band playing punk rock songs ... they were empowered in the way that I imagined myself to be empowered."

One of the members in the Plebes was Jay Farrar, with whom Tweedy would soon form Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy found that empowerment as the bass player for this country-punk band: aggressively bouncing across the stage, taking his shirt off, falling into tables and -- what would become standard Tweedy -- making the audience feel uncomfortable. During one Uncle Tupelo gig in 1989, for example, he reportedly dedicated the Soft Boys' "I Wanna Destroy You" to a girlfriend who showed up that night. It would prove to be one of the first of many insults, sarcastic remarks, and general attempts to rile his audience into coherence that Tweedy would become known for.

When Farrar pulled the plug on Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy, Stirratt, and the rest of the remaining members formed Wilco. With the new band came the beginning of the end of their alt-country status and of being grouped with the likes of Ryan Adams's Whiskeytown and the Old 97s. Just as fans were settling into the familiarity of A.M., Wilco's first album in 1995, along came pop-infused, de-countrified Being Therein 1996. So when the band had the unfortunate duty of following Mr. Country, Johnny Cash, at that year's CMJNew Music Seminar, some fans began to leave. Tweedy, however, reportedly ate up the animosity. "What Jeff could not stand is any kind of passive response," Stirratt told Kot in Wilco: Learning How to Die. "He could accept people hating it, but he couldn't stand people just standing there ... judging him."

"You're never quite sure what songs will be performed, or how," Kot now says about Wilco via an e-mail exchange. "But you can always count on Wilco to play what feels freshest to them, and you can bet they won't be going through the motions playing some song they don't particularly care for anymore. That's not the approach of most artists, who often feel obligated to play certain songs no matter how worn out they are on them. That makes a Wilco show more like a ride with an uncertain destination: You don't know quite where you're going to end up, but you might run into something you've never heard or seen before along the way."

Locals received a taste of Tweedy's need for a crowd reaction when Wilco performed at the Carefree Theater in West Palm Beach during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrottour. After the crowd stayed seated for three or so songs, Tweedy exclaimed, "Hey, this isn't a movie." Some of the audience stood up and began to dance in response, while others made their way to the front of the stage. "Connecting with your audience is really integral to a complete experience," says Stirratt. "When people aren't observing, you can feel it; when they're into it, there's definitely a more conscious energy."

In press interviews, Tweedy has said that he felt more free when recording A Ghost Is Bornthan on past efforts, and on the album he lets it all hang out with multiple guitar solos (the most indulgent being on the fifteen-minute "Less Than You Think"). Those who attend Wilco's upcoming concert at the Pompano Beach Amphitheater can expect Tweedy to indulge (or annoy) them with a few Jimmy Page moments. Or not.

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