The first time I saw Wilco play a live show, in the tiny Camden Opera House in central Maine, a folk outfit called Buffalo Tom opened the show. Buffalo Tom was an imaginative but modest piano-and-guitar duo with an underdog’s sense of humor and songs that climaxed in one-joke choruses. I had never heard of them, even though they had mainstaged Yale’s Spring Fling only a few years before. Like every band Yale has brought to town in the last few years, Buffalo Tom played well, but they showed no special promise.
I don’t remember any of Buffalo Tom’s gestures, jokes, or the music they played, but I’ll always remember them in association with that show. All that summer, I was trying to decide if I wanted to take a year off from Yale after a lackluster freshman year. The prospect — and my parents’ shifting faces at the suggestion — scared me, but Wilco’s live show that night killed any remaining guilt about taking off, and pulled me into new expectations for music and for myself. After the concert I felt — well, I felt the way you’d feel if you went to a concert for the cookies and cheese sandwiches in the car, and then you heard the best pop music of your life, and then you wanted to understand more about everything.
Now for the good news: this year, Yale has finally figured out Spring Fling band-snagging. This year instead of getting Buffalo Tom, we’re getting Wilco.
You don’t even need the albums now to start getting excited. Like many of my friends at Yale now, when I was invited to see Wilco in Camden three years ago I had never heard a lick of the music. But I was a magazine freak, so I had read about Wilco, but avoided their music because desperate rock journalists, reaching for a label, had called it “folk-rock” and “alt-country.”
But like the strange pop of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, I can only consistently classify Wilco’s sound as “American” — but never “traditional.” And like those artists, Wilco likes to stretch musical conventions to a breaking point in their sound, and then see what happens. Wilco’s music doesn’t feed our traditional expectations for its genre, and that is what makes it arresting. For example, the lyrics to the first songs Wilco played at that concert in Maine had long been abandoned by Woody Guthrie, and recently set to original pop music by Wilco’s leading man, Jeff Tweedy.
They were remarkable tunes: the first, “Airplane to Heaven” was about having faith in God and the second, “California Stars,” about a tired worker coming home to rest. These topics are typical of Guthrie, but in Tweedy’s hands, these songs couldn’t have been farther from Guthrie’s musical legacy: “Airplane” used electric organs and guitars to raise a countrified riff into pure noise, while Tweedy carried the swaying Beatlesy melody of “Stars” with a roughed-up vocal line.
Wilco sure played a lot of acoustic guitars, and they still do, but Tweedy wore black leather pants and the organist, who enjoyed busting out Who riffs in the breaks between songs, looked like a cameramen from “Wayne’s World.” And the more they rocked out, the more I realized this was no “folk-rock” band, forever destined for the college festival circuit, blurbs in alternate weeklies and Maine opera houses. This was rock and roll. This was art.
I took that year off and worked hard at different jobs, and there was a time when I was listening to Wilco’s then-new album “Summerteeth” 10 or 15 times a day. In lieu of school, the disc was the most thought-provoking thing around. After a few months of continuous spinning, “Summerteeth” never got old. It couldn’t get old. And there was a different reason why it couldn’t get old each time I listened. It was too catchy (“Can’t Stand It”), or the songwriting was just too exciting (“A Shot in the Arm”) or too funny (“How to Fight Loneliness”), or usually just too disarmingly beautiful in both music (“My Darling”) and lyrics (“She’s a Jar”). Some of the songs, like “I’m Always in Love,” had invented a new way of approximating the sound of electronic music with ordinary guitar, piano, bass, and drums. The instrumental tracks were do-it-yourself techno, and vocals were as simple as Beatles in the front, as complicated as the Beach Boys in the back. And Tweedy’s voice must be heard to be believed. It runs the show.
Like the Oscars, Yale’s Spring Fling is a communal rite I always look forward to without getting my hopes up about the big decisions made behind the curtains. Bands are expensive, and I’ll take what the YCC can get. So what if Ben Harper’s records are boring, and if his show two years ago was muddy and unlistenable? On that beautiful afternoon, the freshmen told us — with their bikinis — that spring had really arrived. So what if Guster was a parody of the college man’s band? I was sorry the fling was flung off last year because of rain.
But this year, if it rains, I’ll cry.
Alejandra O’Leary is a junior in Davenport College.