“I Must Be High” from this era

When it came time, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare: the lights went down, the PA music died out, the announcer grabbed a mic and said, “Ladies and gentlemen … Wilco!”

On they came: multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach looking like everyman – he could have walked across Main Street in front of us while we were standing in line outside and he would’ve just looked like a … well … normal guy; shy-grinning John Stirratt in a wrinkled dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up; Ken Coomer in a pale-yellow Western-style shirt screeched right up to the top button, tucking himself into his cockpit behind the drums. And then there was Jeff Tweedy – head down, slight nod to the crowd; short-cropped hair looking like he’d just had a go at it with a pair of scissors back stage; well-worn faded grey t-shirt with what looked like a 45 single graphic on the front and … leather pants? Yes, but no time for that now; Tweedy was already strumming his faithful old Gibson J-45, laying down the back porch rhythm to “Airline To Heaven”.

And then there was Jay Bennett. Remember: this was old-school Wilco: none of the Nels Cline art-rock-I-am-being-electrocuted-by-this-neat-vintage-Fender-Jazzmaster or Pat Sansone’s Telecaster-slinger poses. This was the Jay Bennett era with all its weirdness: baby face usually well-hidden by three-day stubble, oversize hornrims, and tumbling dirty-blonde dreadlocks; potential bad-craziness stage outfit of out-of-the-hamper sundress accented with a string of pearls, badly-smeared lipstick, and topped with a dented tiara.

But, oh – that man could play.

On this evening, Jay Bennett lurched out of the shadows looking like a mad scientist in a long white lab coat, lashing at the neck of a fat acoustic Guild 12-string with a bottleneck slide. Cassie laughed out loud (just a wee bit nervously – after all, this was not the Shrine circus and that was not Smiley the Clown on stage) and Jess elbowed me. Off we went.

One of the songs from the Mermaid Avenue sessions (long-lost Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Wilco and project collaborator Billy Bragg), “Airline” hit the ground running with upbeat passion. Ken Coomer chucked his way along like a sidewalk drummer on his snare and high-hat through the first verse – then he and John Stirratt kicked in the low-end thump when Tweedy finished the chorus. Leroy Bach twanged the tune’s signature riff on an electric steadily as Bennett’s acoustic slide work got wilder; Tweedy never strayed from the mic; never showed any emotion, even when the song exploded in all its gospel-tent foot-stomping glory after the last verse.

The song crashed to a halt; the crowd was on their feet: It’s the 3rd of July and we’re sitting in Camden, Maine watching Wilco – this is frigging Wilco! The girls were caught up in it, too. It was probably the loudest bunch of adults Cassie’d been exposed to in her 10-1/2 years and it was all because of this funny mix of men on the stage. With a quick glance at me (as if to say, “This is okay, right, Daddy?”), Cass joined in the applause. Jess was already hooting – she wanted to be on stage with them; no doubt about it.

The applause faded as the crowd realized that Jeff Tweedy was already plowing ahead into “Feed Of Man”. Another of a string of Mermaid Avenue songs that dominated the first half of the night, “Feed Of Man” started off with a stripped-down “Shake Your Hips”-style rhythm, building into a full-blown raver punctuated with scary organ swells. Tweedy held down the vocal like a monotone, pale-white John Lee Hooker. Groove spent, the band hit the wall, leaving Jay Bennett’s big red Gibson 335 squealing feedback mournfully.

While immersed in the sessions that produced the two Mermaid Avenue albums, Jeff Tweedy said he wasn’t into Woody the icon: “I’m into Woody the freak weirdo.”

The next song didn’t capture that spirit at all: “California Stars” was beautiful on the album, and it was soothing and calming that night in the Opera House. The band played it straight, letting the song build verse by verse until everyone with a mic was singing and a good chunk of those without, as well.

The mental ointment of “Stars” received the biggest applause of the night up to that point but Tweedy was oblivious to it, as if he needed to let that “freak weirdo Woody” out as soon as possible. He tore into “Christ For President” like it was something that needed to be done – right now. If “Airline To Heaven” bordered on being a gospel stomper, “Christ For President” was a cartoon – the freak was definitely loose. Bennett dug hard into his Gibson, from crazy-paced chicken picking over the song’s rollicking rhythm to bluesy flurries as things chugged into a “Midnight Rambler” sort of tear. He didn’t look like a guitar god that night, but he sure played like one.

Again, as the band lurched to a smoking finish, the crowd had a choice: show their appreciation for the music or cut their applause short to hear the beginning of the next song. Tweedy ushered the hall into a darker Woody place with “Blood Of A Lamb”, a ghostly waltz with phantom organ chords – the girls were quiet in their seats. And if there hadn’t been enough Mermaid Avenue for anyone up to that point, Tweedy pushed the band into one more Woody lyric: “Remember The Mountain Bed”. The mood swung from spooky to sweet/sad. Not to worry, though – things were about to change.

The acoustic Gibson was handed off for a wipe down and a retune and Tweedy strapped on a seafoam Telecaster. (“Dad – Tele!” Jess had pointed as he reached for it; by Christmas of that year, she’d have her own.) Woody’s ghost left the stage to make room for Tweedy’s own personal freak weirdo.

From Being There came “Red-Eyed and Blue”, with Leroy Bach hammering out some fine barroom piano and Tweedy attempting the whistled verse from the album version – all business, even though he had a hard time getting it out there and then – wham! “I Got You and it’s all I need!” Wilco suddenly became a cranked-out garage band and the Opera House was rocking.

And then came the moment; the moment that explained the leather pants and let us all in on the fact that maybe Jeff Tweedy’s head wasn’t completely full of snakes that night – maybe. Chunking along on the main riff of “I Got You”, Tweedy and Jay Bennett suddenly did patented-rock-star scissor kicks in perfect unison – no looks or grins exchanged; just one little outburst of We’re not that serious about all of this and then they churned on. One fake ending; crowd begins to applaud as Bennett’s guitar starts to feed back, then slams back into one more romp through the song’s theme … then … are we done? Still some feedback squeals and Tweedy’s not leaving the mic – suddenly he belts out: “I CAN’T TELL YOU …” Cassie started in her seat; I instinctively gave her a quick hug.

“Someone Else’s Song” was a sweet and plaintive little acoustic number on Being There – tonight it’s a snarling, staggering wall of guitars, crashing drums, and “Little Help From My Friends” (Cocker/Woodstock version) keyboards. You expected smoke and flames to erupt from the grills of the old vintage amps at any second. The guitars dropped out on the last verse, leaving Tweedy’s vocal against the majestic, crackling organ: no fiddle or mandolins here; just raw emotion and fuses on the verge of blowing out of their holders.

The last smoldering notes of “Song” were fading when Leroy Bach began a swirling, haunting keyboard line – an unfamiliar song to all of us that night.

The cash machine is blue and green …

14 months later, some would claim “Ashes Of American Flags” to be eerily prophetic in the wake of the September 11 attack, the song’s siren-like keyboard line sounding like an emergency vehicle. But tonight this was a song of just one man’s pain. We held our breaths as the band faded away, leaving Ken Coomer thumping a slow heartbeat behind Tweedy wrenching slow Hendrix-like backwards-effect cries out of his Tele.

The spiral had started. Wilco taking us into the back pages of a troubled journal. Heavy stuff for young ears, for sure. The only thing that made it easier as a father to let us remain in our seats was the fact that the kids were transfixed by the music itself and most of the mental torment in the lyrics was going unnoticed, for a while longer, anyway.

Case in point: the next song, “How To Fight Loneliness”, sounded like a smooth cruise down the Ventura Highway musically in contrast to Tweedy’s outpatient-in-a-subway-car words of advice. Jay Bennett showed us all what the guitar break on The Eagles’ “Hotel California” would’ve been like if played from the heart rather than for the charts. It was beautiful.

Wilco’s own hotel song, “Hotel Arizona”, was next. Tweedy’s take on road life and the mixed blessings of some level of success was played pretty close to stock, complete with its “doo-doo-doodadoo” chorus until we arrived at the final lines:

Hello? Can you hear me?
Hello? That’s all there is … that’s all there is

The song exploded into a beautiful moment of Leslie-cabinet swirl and tube-amp crunch, all sweet ache – the singer could’ve just as easily been standing on the surface of the moon rather than sitting on a hotel bed with a disconnected phone to his ear. The music rose to the arched ceiling of the Opera House and then settled on all of us.

The girls had grown up to Wilco’s first album, A.M. – the perfect soundtrack for a single dad. Maybe they’d grown up too much to it; I began to wonder about that when I heard Cassie one time matter-of-factly say, “Oh, Dad and Mom had some issues” which, with a waggle of her then-6-year-old fingers was meant to explain the dissolution of our marriage. That would be the first song on side two of your cassette of A.M. , Dad: “That’s Not The Issue”, whose joyful banjo breaks and bouncy chicken picking help to ease the sting of the lyric’s tale of breakup. Is it a good thing that a 6-year-old’s understanding of her parents’ divorce can be summed up in a song? Featuring a banjo ?

I can’t answer that question; but it does help to show that the girls knew A.M. pretty well. And it does help to explain why my daughter, caught up in the spirit of things that night at the Camden Opera House, joined the rest of the crowd in shouting out requests by calling for the album’s opener. That’s a moment lodged in my memory forever: Cassie leaning out over the rail of the balcony and yelling, “I Must Be High!”

Scarred for life? I don’t think so.

I’m not saying that anyone on the stage heard Cassie’s request – there was certainly no huddling amongst the band, and Tweedy had yet to utter a word over the mic between songs but suddenly they were roaring into that song, in all its ragged-but-right glory. Cassie looked like the little kid who’s clapped her hands and made a red balloon appear out of thin air: slightly stunned, but happily amazed at her own powers of suggestion.

The band played “I Must Be High” pretty close to the album arrangement, rocking in and back out of it in about 3 minutes. The crowd roared.

But what’s this? Ken Coomer is climbing out from behind his drum kit while Stirratt and Bennett unsling their axes from their shoulders and Leroy Bach waves to the crowd. Tweedy at the mic, shading his eyes with one hand: “Thanks a lot. It’s hard to see you. We’ll see you later.”


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