A Grudge Is Born 

Jeff Tweedy and Wilco thoroughly own the Paramount, even as they leave their finest hour behind.

Let us now bemoan the abject cruelty of the Constantly Shifting Set List Roulette Wheel of Disappointment and Doom. It spins thus: A big-shot band (oh, say, Wilco) invades the Bay Area for multiple shows o'er multiple nights (oh, say, Saturday in San Jose, Sunday in Oakland, Monday in San Francisco). You consider yourself an enthusiast, a fan. But cash, time, and sanity permit you to attend only one of these three hoedowns, and you must choose wisely, as the set list changes slightly every night, and you're dying to hear Wilco blast through "Misunderstood."

"Misunderstood." Oh, shit. Many an armada of enraged metal dudes, politically indignant rappers, and self-destructive punk rockers have stormed onstage in my presence, and ain't nothin' they pounded out nearly half as seethingly fantastic as "Misunderstood." And this from an ostensibly alt.country band, from a double-album ('96's Being There) best known for jangly, acoustic, let's-gather-'round-the-campfire-we-started-in-our-mod hipster folk tunes.

But oh, shit. "Misunderstood." Wilco deity Jeff Tweedy slow-plays it at first, a cute little ballad rhyming old neighborhood with cigarettes taste so good. Somber, a bit whiny. But it builds, and builds, and builds, a more complex and painstaking process than whatever the Bay Bridge renovation has undergone. And when it finally bottles up and explodes (hopefully not like the Bay Bridge), it's like a slap in the face from the Hand of Doom itself, a violent, distortion-jolted demolition derby wherein Tweedy howls I'd like to thank you all for NOTHIN' NOTHIN' NOTHIN' NOTHIN' with enough arsonist fury to make a mountainous pile of No Depression back issues spontaneously combust.

When Wilco is pulling Opening Act duty, watching dowdy R.E.M. fans react to this is absolutely priceless. Their shiny happy eyes dart frantically around looking for something to crawl under, and you fantasize about jumping up and down on whatever they decide on.

So spin that Roulette Wheel. Sunday, Oakland. The Paramount. Gorgeous venue, my hometown crowd. Seats, arty decor, opulence. Wilco plays for two hours. No "Misunderstood." And according to the disturbingly exhaustive set-list Rolodex at WilcoWeb.com, Tweedy howled through "Misunderstood" both the next night in SF, and the night previous in SJ. In the latter instance, it was the very first song.

ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. "Misunderstood" as the opening song. I would've cried. Cried. ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

It is a time for bright sides, silver linings, solace. Fortunately, the Paramount show's disastrous set list notwithstanding, Wilco still draped us in ornate spiderwebs of fabulousness, its famous, overemulated, and overanalyzed what-punks-think-country-sounds-like vision increasingly blurred in noise, feedback, avant experimentation. No X-Games junkie alive or dead could jump the canyon between mere "maturing" and the far preferable "evolving," and Tweedy serenades campfires safely situated on the latter. Leave the former to U2.

But oddly enough, Jeff has one thing in common with Bono: Both their second-to-last records shot stratospherically up the Poignancy Scale after 9/11. True, Wilco didn't play halftime shows or make the cover of Time, but rock critics nationwide still salivate over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for not-entirely-musical reasons. The record's exhaustively detailed underdog rejected/dropped/reborn/embraced story is old hat by now, but less noticeable is the way the world suddenly rearranged itself to make Tweedy's free-form lyrics make sense, instead of the other way around. Take the Paramount show's opener, "Ashes of American Flags," a mellow march transformed on an idle Tuesday morning from an abstract metaphor to a very, very literal hymn.

Many '90s alt-rock sensations -- Radiohead, say -- have cleaved their careers deftly into two parts, leaving their older, cruder material almost completely behind. Foxtrot, then, is Wilco's Kid A. Of the Paramount set's first sixteen songs (right up to the first encore), only two didn't derive from YHF or this year's sequel (the even more nonlinear and sonically meandering A Ghost Is Born), and one of those, "A Magazine Called Sunset," hailed from a tossed-off EP released between them. So Tweedy doesn't much play "The Hits," such as they are. Just be thankful the material he's fixated on instead is so stellar. Ghost's "Muzzle of Bees" triggered an early peak: a sleepy Saturday morning acoustic guitar number with a long outro hijacked by new member Nels Cline's buzzsaw electric guitar, the first live solo in months I gave a shit about.

Ghost is a strange album, languid and distant, but every idiosyncrasy shines lighthouse-bright live. Bucking the tortured genius label this year's Wilco biography, Learning How to Die, foisted on him, Tweedy rattled off several rounds of goofy banter, a playfulness that only helped his lighter lyrical moments, especially the elliptical refrain of the goddamn-near-funky "Handshake Drugs": It's okay for you to say what you want me to be/I believe that's the only way for me to be/Exactly what you want me to be.

In fact, the Paramount show's raucous peak was Ghost's strangest song, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," an endless Krautrock jam that supported several rounds of out-there guitar solos, in between a good-ol'-boys chorus that deserves its own classic rock radio station. For Tweedy's most ambitious studio tune to morph into his most crowd-pleasing onstage moment is proof enough that Wilco 2.0 is worth buying into.

No "Misunderstood," though. ARRGGH. But Tweedy still managed a bit of righteous fury, complementing a cover of the old Bill Fay tune "Be Not So Fearful" with some two-fisted Republican-bashing. He was preaching to the still-despondent blue-state choir, sure, but the musical sermon that accompanied it was moving all the same: Be not so nervous/Be not so frail/Someone watches you/You won't fail. And it all closed with "Don't Fear the Reaper," which actually has its own classic rock station. At that point no one was fearing much of anything, though a few poor souls winced at falling prey once again to the Constantly Shifting Set List Roulette Wheel of Disappointment and Doom.

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