Stairway to Heaven or Highway to Hell? Hmmm, I don’t know, which is easier? Haha, I’ve always loved that rock cliché’, but there is basically one rule of rock: to truly appreciate it, you go see it live.
I followed that rockin’ rule again on Saturday night, and ventured to the Mann Music Center in Fairmont Park to see a double-bill of some considerable strength. First, Richard Thompson, a British troubadour who has been making music since the Sixties and has endured as both a prolific songwriter of distinction, and a wonderful guitar maestro. And the main event, a band that takes varied musical roots from across the American spectrum and combines them into songs loaded with catchy riffs and strong lyrics. Yes, I’m talking about Wilco, the Chicago-based alt-country, indie, rock ‘n roll band. Let me tell you, it was one terrific show.
I’ve been a Wilco fan forever (even going back to their predecessor band, Uncle Tupelo), but I had never seen them live. There was always something else going on when they were in town, or else I was traveling. But the stars aligned on Saturday.
And as much as I want to talk about Wilco’s performance, I first need to take a minute to acknowledge Richard Thompson. This fellow is in his late 60s, and was a founding member of Fairport Convention. He has had a very long musical career. I won’t lie to you and say that I know his catalog, but I was excited about seeing him because his reputation as a live act of merit preceded him.
Richard played 40 minutes. That seems kind of long for an opening act, but I didn’t even realize he had played that long until I looked at my watch. I was thinking that when he left, I could have listened to a few more songs, and that we got ripped off because he didn’t play long enough; he was that good. His songs are strong, he has a nice stage presence, and he plays one mean guitar. Richard Thompson is the real deal. Too bad for half of the crowd who thought it was better to play cornhole in the parking area rather than to see this venerable singer/songwriter, but he made a joke on stage about you, and those of us in the audience at the time laughed at your expense. You missed out! But because I’m a nice guy, here are some pictures of the man:
Both before and after Richard took the stage, we wandered around the Mann for a bit. I had never been to the Mann (I know, I know), but it’s a great venue. It’s an outdoor pavilion, but on the smaller side, more like Wolf Trap for those reading in the DC area. It holds 4500 under the pavilion roof and about 10,000 on the grass and uncovered seats, has good acoustics, is on the correct side of the Delaware River, and is easy to get in and out of. The seats are comfortably large, even for Americans, and there was ample room between the rows. You park on grassy fields, which I thought would be problematic after the show, but we got out of there in no time. In short, it’s a terrific place to see a show.
It’s even better when you sit up close. I splurged and bought very, very good tickets, and that helped. I don’t know what it was like for those behind us, but it was damn good for us, and that’s the most important thing don’t you think? Anyway, we had good stage access, and the pictures that I got from the show are some of the better ones to grace this blog. I also took more than usual, so I’m splurging on the photos for your viewing pleasure.
So I’ve already given away the fact that the show was great, and that means the headliner brought it. I do know Wilco’s music well, and knew that a large part of their repertoire included acoustic guitars. But that didn’t stop them from bringing the rock hard. I was surprised by how strong many of the band’s songs are when played live. It was a lot of pure electric energy.
I was also reminded that Jeff Tweedy, the band’s leader, is a really good songwriter. I’m a sucker for a song with three electric guitars and enough hooks to hang your hats on. Tweedy delivers, over and over. And his band is strong, particularly Nels Cline, the lead guitarist. Nels can flat out play, and we had perfect seats to see him jam as we were parked right in front of him on his side of the stage. Following one particularly amazing solo, I thought of Dewey Finn’s line in School of Rock: “Dude, is my face okay? Because I think you melted it off.” He was blazin’ on Saturday night.
Both Tweedy and Cline like their guitars, and they brought an impressive quiver with them. Pretty much every song featured a guitar change for each of them, and sometimes Tweedy used two guitars in the same song. Excessive? You bet. Fun? Check two. My pics below have a bunch of the guitars they used, but nowhere close to all of them.
One of the highlights of the show was that Richard Thompson joined the band on stage for one song, and he and Nels did dueling solos. They were clearly enjoying it, having fun as they pushed each other to outdo the other. It was terrific.
Wilco played for 2 ½ hours, which was great because they have plenty of good songs to fill that much time. There wasn’t a lot of chatter on stage, either – while friendly with the crowd, it was simply a non-stop hit parade of songs, almost like the band was anxious to get out as many as they could before they collapsed from exhaustion. And they did something I had never seen before: during their second encore (groan if you will, but it served a purpose), the roadies brought out a new drum kit in front of the one used all night, and the rest of the band came out with acoustic guitars, a banjo, a dobro, and a melodica-kind of thing, and they played about 20 minutes of acoustic songs. It was an inventive way to end the show, and the audience loved it, singing along to well-known songs like “Misunderstood,” “Jesus, Etc.” “I’m Always in Love,” and “A Shot in the Arm.”
I hadn’t been listening to Wilco lately, but this show has them back prominently on the BRP iPod playlist. If they come to your area, check them out. I think you’ll find it worth your time and money. Oh, and here are the numerous pictures that I promised: Tweedy is the guy in the hat, Nels Cline with the many guitars, and Richard Thompson is on the far right in one of the group shots wearing his beret (see the pictures above for more closeup shots of RT).
As always, thanks for reading. I have a small hiatus in shows, and therefore will bore you next time with other thoughts on rock. I thought I might talk about some of the newer bands that I’ve been grooving on recently. I hope that's ok with you.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.