Wilco’s anniversary concert brings past to new heights

Photo courtesy of Sam Hurwitz ‘25

Last Saturday, I found myself sitting in the auditorium of the United Palace Theater in Manhattan, a space that felt more like a work of art than a room. Dark red curtains hung from a golden ceiling, and intricate carvings and designs lined the walls. I stared at those curtains with hundreds of other Wilco fans, excitement buzzing: We knew they would open at any minute, and we thought we knew what would follow.  

The Aizuri Quartet, the show’s opening act, was the first indication that something was unique about this experience. In past Wilco shows I’ve attended, the opening acts have been rock outfits like “My Morning Jacket” or folk crooners like “Daughter of Swords,” so when four people holding cellos and violins took the stage, I was surprised. As I readied myself for a half hour of calm classical music, however, my expectations were thwarted again as the Quartet began to play. Cellos were slapped like drums, violins produced screeches and cries; the sound felt more like noise rock than anything. Before the band had even come out, I realized that this was a different type of Wilco concert.

Perhaps I should provide some context. Anyone who knows me knows I love Wilco—I never shut up about them. My parents started to love the indie rock band when I was a baby, so many of my earliest memories consist of my dad playing his Wilco CDs in the car or my mom filming me strumming a toy guitar trying my best to emulate lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s sound. My first Wilco concert was at the age of four, and ever since then I have been a diehard fan. It just so happens that 2022 is the 20th anniversary of their magnum opus “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” my favorite album of all time. Naturally, when Wilco announced that they would be performing the entire album live in New York City, I had to be there. 

As the Quartet walked off the stage, I  now felt uncertain of what was to come. Yes, this was a Wilco concert, but most of their shows didn’t start with string quartets drumming on their instruments in a grandiose concert hall, in front of those behemoth curtains which were practically begging for me to take a peek behind. The only thing in front of the curtains was an old-fashioned radio. 

My dad pointed at the radio. “You think they’ll use that in the concert?”

Maybe some more context is needed, because you probably have no idea why my dad would ask if a radio would be used in a rock concert. Let me tell you a bit about “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”—the album was a massive change of sound for Wilco, a foray into electronics, sound manipulation and all sorts of other experimental techniques that led to their record label giving the album a firm “no” when it was pitched to them. To make a long story short, Wilco released the album themselves online—a move practically unheard of at the time—and the rest was history. “Yankee” is eleven folk songs dressed up in cosmic outfits; they are stories of yearning across chasms, love amidst distances, cold static that threatens to snuff out hope and the simple need to connect with another to let them know “it’s not about you,” as Tweedy sings at the end of the record. It is a headphones album, an album that when played start to finish will leave you with lasting images and lasting sentiments, making you feel both heard and discovered, with an insatiable desire to listen again and again to make out all the little sound effects.

So when my dad asked me that question about if a radio would function as an instrument, I gave a firm, “Definitely.”

It turns out we were wrong. Instead, a few minutes after the quartet left the stage, Jeff Tweedy walked out in front of the curtains, immediately lighting up the crowd with a simple wave. He turned to the radio, pressed a button, and walked off the stage. The familiar static of the album filled the auditorium, complete with a woman’s voice robotically repeating “YANKEE, HOTEL, FOXTROT,” the chant that closes the song “Poor Places.” Both the album’s title and its sound reverberated through the hall, and I could feel the excitement swirling around the place. Then, it stopped. There was barely a second’s silence before the opening notes of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the first track, filled the room and the curtains opened. There stood the six members of Wilco, the sound of their playing rivaled only by raucous applause. 

For the next hour, Wilco played the entirety of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” uninterrupted, and it sounded near-identical to the record. The six-piece band, complemented by string and horn sections, didn’t speak or acknowledge the audience from the moment the curtains opened to the concluding song’s final note. It quickly became clear why even the opener felt so different—this wasn’t a normal Wilco show, where songs were completely reimagined and Tweedy would joke around with the audience; it was a theatrical experience. This was the band’s attempt to let us step into the album for the first time again, to rejoice with hundreds of others in celebrating all the nooks and crannies that make up this piece of art. 

And that feeling, that appreciation and gratitude, flowed within every moment of the concert, from the crowd singing along to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the Aizuri Quartet getting a chance to return and shine on “Jesus Etc.,” the addictive transition between “Ashes of American Flags” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” being faithfully recreated, and so much more. By the final track, “Reservations,” it felt like “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” had come alive, like I was watching my favorite album dance around in front of me. 

Then, it was over. The band walked off stage and applause echoed through the theater. The stage was only empty for a few minutes, however; the band returned shortly after and finally acknowledged us, the audience, as Tweedy began to speak. He gave a speech that outlined Wilco’s intentions for this concert, including the choice for the Quartet to open. He claimed that the Quartet represented the “world of creativity and beauty” that Wilco strived to join by making the album; suddenly that peculiar opening made complete sense. 

As an encore, the band played a few tracks made around the same time as “Yankee” before closing the set with three rock songs from their 1996 album “Being There”; by the end of those songs, myself and many other Wilco fans were in the aisle, dancing to the anthemic choruses we knew so well. There wasn’t a person sitting down in the audience. As the band finally waved goodbye and my family and I left the theater, I felt a sense of emotional adrenaline within me, a sense of immense joy entangled with a feeling of nostalgic gratitude.

I think the best way to encapsulate this feeling is to mention how the band performed “Reservations,” the final track on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” This song ends with a three-minute instrumental outro which, instead of being played live, was played through the speakers straight from the album. As it played, the band stayed completely still, silhouetted by the backlight. I could not hear a sound in the room but the ambient tones of the record’s final minutes. In those moments it felt like the entire twenty years since the album’s release were flashing through my mind; I stared at each of the band members and looked around the auditorium, seeing all of the people that this record has impacted. I saw my family and I saw myself, and I was suddenly back to being four years old at my first concert, with wonder in my eyes.

 

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