Wilco & The Roots Rendezvous At Red Rocks

Morrison, Colorado, USA; June 17, 2005

by Sean McCarthy

redrocks_150The pairing sounded mismatched and totally perfect at the same time -- The Roots and Wilco. One represents a glowing beacon for hip-hop; one represents a glowing beacon for alt-country. Both are known for their live shows and their willingness to turn a simple song into an extended jam session.

Each band reached headline status about five years ago. The prospect of seeing Wilco live almost made me throw down the cash to see them at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The inclusion of the Roots made the show one of those shows that you had to see, regardless of the funds, vacation days available or transportation available. On a clear evening, Wilco spun their webs of deduction and melodies against the gigantic, sloped sandstone rocky backdrop.

The crowd was mercifully light on the hipster side. The only people with horned-rimmed glasses were people who actually needed glasses. No trucker hats. No tongue-in-cheek heavy metal Dokken or Def Leppard t-shirts. The only presence that was ample was the throngs of pretty and fit guys and girls, which my female traveling cohort pointed out. However, with due respect to the folks near the Red Rocks area, when you're surrounded by mountains, trails and altitude, you're bound to get a workout eventually.

The Roots was the first band to take the stage. Things Fall Apart and their most straightforward album, The Tipping Point, are pure hip-hop albums. As a live unit, The Roots turned into a rock/rap/jam/R&B party band. The addition of guitar god Vernon Reid could have been a misguided match (think Dave Navarro in the Red Hot Chili Peppers), but Reid's style fused perfectly with The Roots.

The only issue I had with The Roots's performance (aside from brevity) was the heavy emphasis on covers. Sure, I loved hearing The Roots do a slamming cover of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" (a perfect vehicle for ?uestlove, one of the finest drummers in rock today), but the inclusion of a few other covers meant less time to hear material from Phrenology and Illadelph Halflife.

Wilco came on stage and began their first 'instant concert highlight' with "A Shot In The Arm." Jeff Tweedy looked out to the audience and commented about the amazing breeze he was feeling and how he couldn't believe they were playing Red Rocks. After the affirming "Shot In The Arm," he went on to the more morose "Handshake Drugs," which he dedicated to his sister during a concert last year.

The setlist focused primarily on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. However, old school fans were treated to a liberal helping of tunes from Being There during two encores. Even tunes from their Billy Bragg recording sessions made it into their set (although crowd favorite "California" was not included).

Judging by Tweedy's notorious perfectionist leanings and volatile temperament, Wilco's lineup will always be as stable as the tech market for a college grad. But after seeing Wilco's performance Friday, you hope that the lineup will remain the same at least for another album or two. Drummer Glenn Kotche showed a genuine glee as he banged away to "I'm a Wheel" and "At Least That's What You Said." Fairly new member Nels Cline also fit in perfectly perfectly, at times looking like a grizzled Bob Dylan, circa 1997. Tweedy's mood seemed to change throughout the show. Some tunes he sang with an infectious grin, affably looking over toward his fellow bandmates. Other times, he seemed slightly bored. But still, it's a job, and after performing a few hundred shows, you're bound to run into a few moments of sleepy-eyed boredom from show to show.

Wilco closed the set with the tennis-match-like feedback epic "Spiders," perhaps the only song that worked the crowd into a pogo-stomping frenzy. Around this time, the smell of pot, be it skunky, generic or sweet, was as prevalent as the fresh Colorado air. Wilco took the stage and began to play the opening bars of "Misunderstood," which at least a fifth of the crowd sang along with half-drunk heartfelt affirmation. The second encore, Tweedy and company looked like they didn't want to leave. Tweedy joked that he wanted to play a ton of more stuff. By the time the band came on for the second encore, about a tenth of the crowd had already began to make tracks to the exits in hopes of avoiding traffic.

The show was worth the nine-hour drive. The only thing I was hoping for a joint encore that would have brought The Roots back on stage. Wilco's live shows have been compared with jam-heavy bands, such as the Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic. However, Wilco's focus rarely allowed them to go into extended jams and noodling. What Wilco's live set accomplishes, like Radiohead's live shows, is to bring an organic warmth to some of their more sterile (sometimes perceived as standoffish) studio tracks. By the time Wilco sang their cover of Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air," it was enough to make a bookish techno geek reach for a bic lighter.

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