Wilco & Okkervil River @ Greek Theatre, Berkeley, 6.27.09

Every city has its venues that for better or worse are prompt when it comes to set times. The Greek Theatre in Berkeley is one of those. Show time on my ticket stub read 730pm. Given my interest in the opener, Okkervil River, I arrived at the gates around 720pm. As I made my way to the side stage, Okkervil were a few seconds into their first song. I checked my watch: 727pm. That is not prompt, it's bs. Maybe the venue thinks no one's there to see the opener, but I was.

As I turned the corner into the beautiful Greek Theatre, nearly all seats were already spoken for. I drifted around the lawn and eventually found some friends about midway between the stage and the back of the venue. Perfect. Okkervil's set was quick but solid. The crowd seemed fairly ambivalent, which is somewhat surprising given the similarities between the bands.

And then came Wilco. The arguments from Wilco purists down to the recent converts is often about as tiresome as it gets. Yes, they've changed. Yes, they've had a lot of lineup changes. But there's little sensible argument against their output from 1994 to date. They have released seven records, nine if you count the Mermaid collaborations, and they have yet to release anything even close to a clunker. I can count on but one hand or maybe no hands, acts that can claim that consistency. They are arguably the best band since R.E.M., and have outdone their mentor on the longevity note. R.E.M. were great for ten years. When they turned the corner to crap in 1994, Wilco grabbed the proverbial torch.

I have now seen Wilco about 40 times. Maybe 35. Maybe 50. I have never once been disappointed. I've actually never left without feeling an almost all-encompassing feeling of euphoria. They are the one band that can take all the pains, doubts and nerves of a day and give you two-plus hours of freedom.

Last night was no exception. This lineup, now together for five years or so, is about as tight as Wilco's ever been. "A Shot in the Arm," the third song on the set list, brought on a fairly explosive response from the crowd, and a look around the audience revealed singalongs, bear hugs and a general sense of communal appreciation. Many of Wilco's weaker songs on record, turn into their strongest songs live. "At Least That's What She Said" and "You Never Know" are joyous live, while staples such as "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" and "Impossible Germany" prove that a band consisting of mostly 40-somethings can deliver rock n' roll with an urgency and potency just as they did back in the mid-90s.

As the moon hovered over the theatre, fans were treated to the back catalog gems "Box Full of Letters" and "Misunderstood," two songs that quickly brought back thoughts of Jay Bennett. As much as I love the latest lineup, and as much as they pulled these songs off, these songs just aren't the same without Bennett's dreads flying on the former and his quirky keyboard fills on the latter.

After the show, I learned that the Greek holds about 8000, which was shocking given how intimate this show felt. Maybe it was the crowd, which over time, has become about as diverse a crowd as you'll see at a live show. There are the lifers (me), the hipsters, the families, damn, even some deadheads. But it's about as respectful and appreciative an audience as you'll see, and much of that has to do with the consistent and moving goods delivered by Tweedy and company.


Joyce said...

Gret post and review Chris.

Joyce said...

oh darn, that's "Great" post

The Judge said...

loved reading this chris

Anonymous said...

I was pissed about okkervil starting early too! I ran in as I heard 'Black' playing from afar and finally get settled toward the end of Girl in Port. Do I even want to know what I missed?