Acouple of birthdays ago, Jeff Tweedy got what might seem like a strangepresent from his wife, Sue–a guitar lesson from Richard Lloyd, ofpunk-jam legends Television. But the Wilco leader was obviously anenthusiastic student: Five shows into the debut tour of Wilco’s newlineup, he stood strafing a crowd with the kind of extended,malfunctioning-machine-gun blasts that Lloyd trademarked in the late’70s–half lead, half rhythm, all frayed nerve endings. That’s thestory of Wilco’s jammy new A Ghost Is Born, on which the band mutates into Phish with a much cooler record collection.
Tweedyis wisely touring with extra firepower: indie-rock workhorse PatSansone (guitars and keyboards) and Nels Cline, a genre-agnostic guitarvirtuoso who made a screaming John Coltrane covers album a few yearsago. On this tiny, college-town barroom stage, sounding way phatterthan they did following the release of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (when the downsizing of guitarist Jay Bennett had left a hole in their sound), Wilco seemed capable of nearly anything.
Nearly. “A Shot in the Arm” saw Cline using his bottleneckslide like a caveman digging for grubs, and “Poor Places” sparked aSonic Youth-like feedback display. Just one month after his rehabstint, Tweedy is becoming a semi-generous frontman. On “Hummingbird,”he unstrapped his guitar and worked the crowd from the lip of thestage; in jacket and tie, he looked like Julian Casablancas with a fewmore years under his white belt. Too bad the really hot-shit guitarsongs from Ghost–“At Least That’s What You Said” and the11-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”–never bloomed into the telekineticfreak-outs one hoped for. Sure, this is a new lineup, still finding itsfooting, but it was obvious that Cline (a more skilled player thanTweedy) was on a short leash, offering flickers of mind-blowing leadswhile his boss waxed on. It all peaked with the aphoristic anthem “Waron War”; if the song’s signature lines, “You have to learn how to die /If you wanna wanna be alive,” are a metaphor for ceding control, maybeTweedy is still learning.