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Live Review: Wilco w/ Cut Worms @ Wolf Trap — 6/20/24

For all their forays into various subgenres and styles, Wilco, the Chicago institution fronted by Jeff Tweedy, are at their core a hard-rocking six-piece unit who put on a dynamite live show. While their albums cover territory ranging from alt-country to vintage pop to experimental rock, as a live act they are incredibly tight, with Tweedy’s songs supported by the instrumental prowess of guitar virtuoso Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keys player Mikael Jorgensen, and bassist John Stirratt, who is, along with Tweedy, the sole remaining member of the original lineup still with the band.

Wilco recently reminded us what a revolutionary live act they remain in a stunning show at Wolf Trap.

Wilco formed in 1994 following the breakup of seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, led by Tweedy and Jay Farrar (who spun off into his own band, Son Volt). Their first LP, A.M., released in 1995, stayed close to the style pioneered by Uncle Tupelo. (They played one track from the album, “Box Full of Letters.”)

At Wolf Trap on June 20, Wilco kicked things off with a “Misunderstood,” a cut from their next record, the double album Being There, and their set also included “Forget The Flowers.” Released a year later, it marked a change in direction, with the country-rock elements in their sound receding. This was followed by a collaboration with English folk-punk musician Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue, which made use of lyrics Woody Guthrie had never put to song; they played “California Stars” at the beginning of their encore. Wilco put out their third album, Summerteeth, in 1999. The album completed the transition away from country to an indie rock sound influenced by Big Star and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. They played three songs from that album: “I’m Always In Love,” “A Shot In The Arm,” which concluded the main set, and “Via Chicago,” during the encore.

Watch Wilco perform “Via Chicago” at a Songkick Live Pop-up concert at the Chicago Athletic Association’s Stagg Court on YouTube:

Wilco’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was mired in drama, but has been acknowledged as one of the best releases of the 21st century. Wilco’s label, Warner Brothers, refused to release it because it was deemed not “commercially viable.” The label dropped Wilco and released the masters to the band, who streamed the album on their website. Eventually, YHF was picked up by Nonesuch Records, and it reached No. 13 on the Billboard charts, selling more than half a million copies. In addition to being the band’s most commercially successful release, it has achieved even greater influence and critical acclaim.  The band American Aquarium takes their name from a lyric in “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” which appeared in the Wolf Trap set, as did the nostalgic “Heavy Metal Drummer” and the oft-covered love song “Jesus, Etc.”

Since the pandemic shut things down, Wilco has been especially prolific, releasing the double-length album Cruel Country in 2022 and Cousin last year. The former marked something a return to their roots in alt-country, and the set included three tracks: the title cut, “I Am My Mother,” and “Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull,” while the encore included “Falling Apart (Right Now).” They played two songs from the latter, which was produced by Cate LeBon: the title cut and “Evicted.”

After kicking things off with “Misunderstood” and “Forget the Flowers,” the set continued with “Handshake Drugs” and “At Least That’s What You Said.” The set included favorites from across their extensive, diverse catalog: “Meant To Be,” “Theologians,” “Hummingbird,” and “Impossible Germany.” Tweedy introduced “If Ever I Was A Child” as “a good song to sing on the summer solstice.” Jeff didn’t say much, but he did acknowledge the crowd: “I’m not ignoring you when you say you love me. I get it.”

Watch Wilco perform “If I Ever Was a Child” live on KCRW via YouTube:

The evening concluded with a lengthy encore. After playing “California Stars,” “Falling Apart (Right Now),” and “Via Chicago,” they sent the audience home with “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” For those who use public transit to attend shows at Wolf Trap, it’s worth noting that they’ve pushed back the departure of the bus to McLean Metro to either 20 minutes following the conclusion of the show or 11:15, whichever comes first. This is a positive development, as we still reached the Metro with 10 minutes to spare before the final eastbound train to Largo, and I was able to catch the entirety of their set.

To start the evening, Cut Worms played a 30-minute set. Helmed by singer-songwriter Max Clarke, a native of Strongsville, Ohio, Cut Worms plays ’60s-inflected pop that showed the influence of the Everly Brothers and Brian Wilson. The band share that latter influence in particular with Jeff Tweedy, and, while they sound quite different — much softer and gentler — this made them a fitting complement. They started things off with “Don’t Want To Say Good-Bye,” followed by “Ballad of the Texas King,” “Living on the Inside,” “I’ll Never Make It,” “Sold My Soul,” and “Every Once In A While,” concluding, appropriately, with “Don’t Fade Out.”

I was lukewarm on Cut Worms from listening to their albums, but I really enjoyed them as a live act. And while I’ve always appreciated Wilco’s recorded material, they’re even more impressive in person — this is truly one of the great American rock bands.

Here are some photos of Cut Worms opening Wilco at Wolf Trap on June 20, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.

 

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Here are some photos of Wilco headlining Wolf Trap on June 20, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.

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