Wilco with Andrew Bird at Kansas City’s Crossroads
J. Gordon
10/15/2007 5:58:55 PM

Traditionally, Fall has always been a primo time for concerts, so making a claim such as “concert of the year” in early October is a pretty risky call. But it’s safe to say that outside of mega-star festivals such as Pitchfork, Coachella and Lollapalooza, Wilco and Andrew Bird’s humble yet Earth-shaking Kansas City performances have got to be included in at least the 2007 Top Three. Up against Elton John at the nearby Sprint Center, it was almost comical to watch the crowds file out of their parked cars on the street, walk down the road together and then split apart at the indie-corporate junction.

Let’s talk just a second about the venue: in my thirty-plus years of concert-going in ten states and two coasts, never has a performance set-up made more sense. An outdoor gig, Crossroads has two entrances on both sides, plus an adjoining (and very cool) restaurant called Grinders. The crowd stands on mulch—no mud, no worn grass, a soft fall for drunken idiots and easy on the feet for long periods of standing. Wristbands solve the whole separating the minors-issue so parents and slightly-older dates aren’t relegated to kiddie sections to watch. Fans can stand right up against the large covered stage and there is not a bad ‘seat’ in the house. The staff is efficient and halfway pleasant, the prices are average, and with no roof on a perfect night, there is no smoke to deal with. Most important of all, however, is that the sound is fucking perfect. Elton John wishes he could have played here.

A solo Andrew Bird began the Saturday starlight set on this cool October evening. Here is a guy with a tremendous reputation, and all one can say is that all the critical acclaim in the world could not do this man’s live show justice. A perfect stylistic blend of the past and present, Bird wore an affable grin, a hobo cap and a simple jacket as he entranced us with his electric fiddle and bluesy lyrics. And then he proceeded to blow our minds as he sampled sections of his own work on-the-spot, recording loops and layering on new instruments with all the technical grace of Radiohead.

With a low-key demeanor, he greeted the crowd quietly. “My name is Andrew Bird and I’m, uh… I dunno. I’m pleased to meet you, that’s all…” An old-fashioned Leslie —sort of a double-horned gramophone that spins to play with sound— rotated and played with the sound, spinning so fast at times that it resembled a helicopter. Meanwhile, Bird plucked, banged and stroked his violin, as well as mesmerizing us with guitar, xylophone and even flawless whistling. Perhaps less talked about (but certainly just as impressive) are his vocals; a cool, smooth croon with a great range and wistful, beautiful high notes that hang on and then fade as gently as a kiss on the lips. Andrew Bird is a musician’s musician, a writer’s lyricist, and a singer’s vocalist.

Andrew Bird has been touring around the US with a full band for the last couple years, and the idea of matching him with a band seems like it would almost be a bummer after you’ve seen what this guy can pull off alone. Closer to prog-rock than indie-alternative in complexity, Bird lacks the pompous, over-produced air of his forefathers from musical wizards such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and that ilk. As a solo artist, Andrew Bird easily manages to sound like thirty musicians—and deserves thirty times the success of Elton John.

After a restless half-hour, headliners Wilco walked on stage and gently poured themselves into “Via Chicago,” which as an opener came off a little weird as they moved from the gentle country ballad to wild percussion and strobe lights, and then back again. It was a hard transition for the eyes, ears and mind. But maybe that was just because of all the skunkweed suddenly in the air.

Frontman Jeff Tweedy is still husky and hairy these days, but looking more country than ever in a cowboy hat, versus the homeless-guy-on-the-corner look he’s been sporting the last couple of years. No matter. He still has a voice with all sweet authenticity of a twenty-year-old boy with a broken heart.

“Company in my Back” was next, bringing smiles to a lot of faces in the crowd as they swayed and danced.” Tweedy seemed genuinely appreciative of the sold-out crowd and after a shy, “Hello,” greeting he later added, “I have no idea how this happened,” marveling at the hyped, packed crowd, the cool-but-not-cold temperature, and the rain-free perfection of the last show of their tour and of Crossroads’ season.

“It’s a pretty good sight from here,” Jeff said to the crowd. “You can see all the searchlights… for Elton John! I totally hope he hears us, he’s gonna be so sad!”

Next, the volume was turned up, the lights got a little brighter and wilder, and those familiar Yankee Hotel Foxtrot noises moved in for “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” But there was no heartbreak here as everything—and I mean everything—was flawless. All the wonderful background voices were there—the toy piano, the whistles, the radio static—all the things that elevated Wilco from a cool-enough alt-country outfit to the wonder they are today. While the noises were all there, it was clear they were done in the moment, too; this was fresh and different from whatever loops they’d used on the album, and it all moved into a beautiful cacophony of guitar and percussion.

The cheerful “Pot Kettle Black” was next, followed by “Handshake Drugs.” Yes, we’ve mentioned how good the sound was in previous paragraphs. It’s gotta be mentioned again. There are so many little details and nuances to Wilco’s music. To nail them all is a feat. To nail them in an outdoor venue is a miracle.

As expected, Wilco played the best numbers off their new album, Sky Blue Sky [nonesuch], including “Side with the Seeds,” but also oldies like, “She’s a Jar.” The dueling guitars at the end of “Impossible Germany” felt like a lost Allman Brothers hit live, and it was great to hear their old Pointessential Hit, “Box Full of Letters,” and (later on) “Casino Queen,” from back in the days when St. Louis claimed Wilco as an up-and-coming local band.

A gorgeous version of “Jesus, Etc.” was next, with keyboards replacing the string parts (One wonders why they didn’t just call Andrew Bird on the stage). Meanwhile, the crowd was in a collective orgasm until Jeff had us laughing again with, “This is easily the most awesome audience of the tour. Shit. I bet Elton John has a bunch of jerks. And a lot of money…” During “Too Far Apart,” Jeff adlibbed in a high falsetto, “I’m tellin’ you, Elton! I couldn’t be any closer to you…” before he said, “Boy, my voice gets better and better every night. Is that immodest to say?”

The microphone dropped from its stand.

“Boy, Elton has strange magic powers.”

After an hour and a half straight, the band took a break and returned with an encore that included, “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” “Hummingbird,”and “Hesitating Beauty.” Tweedy was clearly having the time of his life, as he took off his hat and ran in place, donned articles of clothing the audience threw at him, and cut up like a school kid.

“You’re an infectious crowd!” he taunted. “I didn’t want to have fun tonight!” Next, he mocked every cheap commercial ever on TV and said, “We know you had a choice tonight (motioning toward Elton). We appreciate your business,” before crashing into “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

It was after 11:15 pm, and Wilco, who’d been playing since 9:30, weren’t done yet. “Red-Eyed and Blue” was next, with a whistling part that Tweedy really should have left to Andrew Bird. Realizing his deficiency, Tweedy joked, “I taught Andrew Bird everything he knows…” “I Got You (at the End of the Century),” “Casino Queen” and the delightful “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” had the entire place dancing. And then… what’s this? A weird 80s synth beat? Can it be? Yes… “Kidsmoke”! A weird climax with its lengthiness and hypnotic rhythm, but somehow, this song strangely worked. Had it been an indoor venue, the audience would have been through the roof with excitement. And Wilco took it still farther, suddenly blasting a full-on, Fourth-of-July-worthy grand finale of fireworks directly over our heads for several minutes, before resuming “Kidsmoke”’s big end.

“Take that, Elton John!” he shouted. And the funny thing is, this reporter had written those exact same words just moments before he’d said it.


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