What do you do when your essay is due in 24 hours, your word count is at zero and you’re still not through the 900-page novel that you’re meant to read by tomorrow?
You go to see Wilco in London.
Cambridge sometimes feels like you live to work, with your choice of musical outings confined to the Corn Exchange and the Junction, lest you stray too far from your college library. So, when, in the late afternoon of last Saturday, I made my way down Regent Street towards the station to board a southbound train for London, I felt a mix of guilt and exaltation for allowing myself this night off, deadline looming and nothing yet to show for.
But if there was any part left in me saying that I wasn’t meant to be there when I positioned myself somewhere in the third row of the Brixton Academy just after 7 o’clock, those doubts were blown away completely when frontman Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Nels Cline took the stage to open with ‘Normal American Kids’, off the band’s latest record Schmilco. After the opener, the remaining members of the sestet joined and launched into the acoustic-driven ‘If I Ever Was a Child’, in which Tweedy sings: “I jumped to jolt my clumsy blood / While my white, green eyes / Cry like a window pane / Can my cold heart change / Even out of spite?”
That’s all it takes: a group of excellent musicians together on a stage, a minor chord at the right time, a beautiful image carried by a unique voice – I was happy like a child. If the crowd of just under 5,000 still needed any more jolting, the ever growing crescendo of ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ and the subsequent thunderstorm of a song ‘Art of Almost’ promptly delivered, and catapulted the audience from foot-tapping approval into sonic ecstasy. Glenn Kotche drummed like a beast, while Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone drew all the right notes from their keys, the latter switching back and forth between piano and guitar throughout the night.
With ‘Via Chicago’, the band played another of their more well-known pieces, in a show which managed well to balance tried-and-true material and new energy. Sounding like a hybrid between Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ and a noise rock performance, the song off 1999’s Summerteeth had Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt placidly harmonising through some of its verses, while the rest of the band raged like a tempest, only to return right afterwards to perfectly timed ballad-playing. On the last stop of their three-month world tour, Wilco’s members were finely attuned to each other, and seemingly eager to play one last all-out show before heading home – they succeeded.
Week Five brought its promised academic blues to Cambridge; Week Six saw dreadful election news from across the pond; Week Seven sent America’s premier alt-country band to the rescue. After a cathartic ‘Impossible Germany’, Tweedy said into the microphone: “Take that, Trump.” He won’t care, to be sure, but I know we did. A doubtlessly recent graffito just outside the venue read in big white letters “MAKE AMERICA HATE AGAIN.” Wilco certainly spread a very different spirit during the evening: “This is what love is for / To be out of place / Gorgeous and alone / Face to face.”
‘Jesus, Etc.’ during the first set of the six-song encore had the crowd singing back every word, creating the sense of community among strangers that only music can accomplish. The band finally closed the show with ‘California Stars’, on which the evening’s opening act guitarist William Tyler was invited onto the stage, and a strong rendition of ‘A Shot in the Arm’.
Along with hundreds of fellow concertgoers, I made my way back towards King’s Cross on the Tube, some getting off at Oxford Circus to change, some riding past my intermediate destination, perhaps heading home to a London suburb. The last train of the night delivered me back into the Cambridge bubble at 1:22am, after a good hour of being squashed in the overheated window seat next to a sleeping woman, but buzzing with abundant Wilco energy for the entire journey, via Stevenage, via Royston, via Chicago.
I walked back to college in the pouring rain, my shoes soaked all the way through when I made it home just before two in the morning. I won’t pretend I got enough sleep that night, but I didn’t for a second wish I hadn’t gone. It was liberating to remember that the Cambridge music world doesn’t stop at the Corn Exchange. London has wonderful shows to offer almost every night, not quite as far from Cambridge as it may feel. My Wilco night has only convinced me that our big southerly neighbour can simply be an extension ground to our little university town.