[Interview] Wilco

A series of highs and lows that includes critical and popular acclaim

2009 - Album Release Interview

Don’t let the name(s) fool you. Just because the first song on Wilco’s new album, “Wilco (the album)” is called “Wilco (the song)” doesn’t mean that Jeff Tweedy has run out of ideas (or words).

(Although the band’s leader could do with fewer parenthetical references).

The group kicks off its American summer tour at the Aronoff Center Friday night before playing the Bonnaroo Festival on Saturday.

“Jeff’s lyrics are the focal point of the band for me,” says drummer Glenn Kotche, “but we all contribute ideas musically.”

Wilco’s 15-year history is a series of highs and lows that includes critical and popular acclaim (two Grammys for 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born”), corporate and musical turmoil (Reprise Records dropped the group in 2001 right before Kotche joined; Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt are the only original members), and personal sadness (former keyboardist-guitarist Jay Bennett died last month shortly after filing a lawsuit against Tweedy for breach of contract).

Somehow, Tweedy and his mates have put the distractions aside to make four cutting edge albums since 2002: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” “Ghost,” “Sky Blue Sky” and “Wilco (the album),” which arrives June 30. The last three coincide with the current lineup, which is the most stable in the band’s history. In addition to Tweedy, Stirratt and Kotche, it includes keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen, guitarist Nels Cline and Pat Sansone who plays keyboards and guitar.

Kotche credits some of the success to the fact that everyone in the band has side projects so they don’t have to live and die with Wilco.

“I do a lot of solo shows,” says Kotche, who was given a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2007 from the University of Kentucky where he earned a degree in music performance.

“And I work with (classical groups) Eighth Blackbird and Kronos Quartet, where I can try anything I feel like. I need that balance to exercise the hermetic side of me.”

Kotche exercised his avant garde side in Cincinnati when he performed at the Music Now Festival in 2006. But he also played in rock and country bands in college, where he exercised a less highbrow side when he would drive up from Lexington

“I have fond memories of Sudsy Malone’s,” he laughs, recalling shows at the former laundromat-nightclub in Corryville. “And the Southgate House, too. Those places were fun then.”

That was then, though, and Kotche’s energetic drumming is the propulsive force for one of the most entertaining live bands playing today. More than that, he is a trusted collaborator of Tweedy, who pays him the ultimate tribute on the band’s recent “Ashes of American Flags” DVD.

“I think in a lot of ways, Glenn really saved the band,” Tweedy says. “Just bringing his enthusiasm at such a difficult time. His vitality was such a breath of fresh air for us.”

Kotche promises the band will bring another wave of freshness to the Aronoff Center.

“This is the first show in the States, so I’m sure we’ll roll out some of the new songs,” he says.

Even if the title of one of them sounds very familiar.

2009 - Concert Review

Wilco (The Band) kicked off Wilco (The Concert) Friday night at the Aronoff Center with “Wilco (The Song)” from its upcoming record “Wilco (The Album).”

Put the parentheses away: Jeff Tweedy and his collection of virtuoso cohorts are at the top of their game, staking a claim as one of America’s most innovative and entertaining bands.

For more than two hours, the six players showed what standout musicians can do with outstanding material. The performance featured five songs from the new record, all of which stood strong beside favorites from the band’s six studio albums, plus a fine reading of “California Stars” from the “Mermaid Avenue” project.

Tweedy stands front and center, literally as the lead singer, and figuratively as the main songwriter. Although the group has never had a radio hit, many in the packed house of more than 3,000 knew every word to each of the 23 songs played, an impressive tribute to a band that is a critical favorite but not a big commercial success.

No matter. The folks showed up to watch Tweedy orchestrate a variety of tunes that featured John Stirratt, the other original member, on bass, guitar guru Nels Cline, drummer extraordinaire Glenn Kotche, and keyboardists Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone, who also played guitar on occasion.

From softly strummed acoustic guitars to electronic bombast of dueling keyboards and guitars, all of which is impeccably propelled by Kotche, the band has mastered the Tweedy songbook.

“Handshake Drugs” from “A Ghost Is Born”  is the quintessential Wilco song. At the start, Tweedy sings accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, but after a couple of verses, the others turn up the volume and the tempo. By the time Tweedy trades acoustic for electric to join Cline and Sansone with their six-strings, the song takes a different tack, becoming a squall of guitar noise guaranteed to make hair stand and feet move.

The set list seemed to be designed to group like-minded songs: “Drugs” was followed by more intensive guitar work on “Some Side With the Seeds” and “Shot in the Arm,” while a bit later, the gentler tempo of “Jesus, etc.,” “Impossible Germany” and “California Stars” gave the audience a chance to catch its collective breath.

That set the stage for the march to the finale that featured “You Never Know,” one of the highlights from the new album, and longtime crowd-pleasers “Misunderstood” and “Spiders.”

After the first goodbye, the players reappeared for energetic versions of “The Late Greats,” “I Hate It,” “Walken” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”

The show was the band’s first since returning from Europe last week, and might have been scheduled as a tune-up for its Bonnaroo appearance Saturday. If that’s the case, let’s hope the future holds more dates sandwiched between foreign travel and festival showcases.

Fans had another reason to thank Wilco Friday: Putting the Heartless Bastards on the bill. The hometown favorites, who headlined the Madison Theater last winter, have become full-fledged rock stars with the success of “The Mountain.”

Singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom and comrades played a tight six-song set, and she  took time to tell her old friends how nice it was to be back in town.

It was nice to have them back. And it was nice that they brought their new friends with them, too.


Each week, Bob Hust and Bill Thompson feature the best songs – old and new – from artists they have loved for many years and others they have just discovered. The best songs transport people to a time and place. That’s the foundation of BS&B.

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