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New Wilco

RODNEY WILSON | CIN WEEKLY CONTRIBUTOR

It was over a decade ago and the lazy summer air was filled with heady aromas from nearby rhinoceroses. The low murmur of the expectant concertgoers was occasionally punctuated with far-off howls from overexcited gibbons. And there were flamingos - a lot of flamingos.

Playing at the Cincinnati Zoo might be a strange experience for many musicians, but this band took it all in stride, ignoring the smells from the elephant house when the wind shifted a certain way. Wilco, a new band then, touring in support of its debut album A.M., took the stage and quickly drowned out the primal screams coming from just over the hedge.

It's been 12 years since that night, and Wilco's career has grown considerably - the band's next Cincinnati stop is indoors, at the prestigious Aronoff Center. In the past dozen years, the group has won a Grammy, weathered numerous lineup changes and inspired documentation both literary (The Wilco Book, Learning How to Die) and cinematic (I Am Trying to Break Your Heart). The members have seen both critical success and personal struggles, and they've come out on the other side a solid, well-grounded set of music makers.

STABILITY GAINED
"I think this is the longest time that we've ever had one lineup intact," says percussionist Glenn Kotche. "It seems there's a tremendous amount of personal and musical respect amongst all the bands members."

Wilco's new album, Sky Blue Sky (out last month on Nonesuch), is the first studio effort from the new lineup: original members, singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt; Kotche; keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen; multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and guitarist Nels Cline.

The band's career has been fraught with well-publicized challenges, including less-than-amicable member departures and Tweedy's struggles with sobriety. But the stable lineup and the frontman's clean lifestyle make for a band that's ready to move forward. "Jeff's in a really healthy place," Kotche says. "Things are just going well in general."

Sky Blue Sky evidences the positive changes the band has seen in the past few years. Previous studio albums such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born were recognized as both sonic genius and obvious testaments to personal challenges. Sky Blue Sky is simple and direct, both musically and lyrically.

CIRCULAR REASONING
"Typically, in the past, Jeff brought in a lot of more finished song ideas that we'd kind of arrange from there," Kotche says. Songs for Sky Blue Sky, however, were written collaboratively, with band members just sitting in a circle and playing ideas for each other.

"Someone would throw out a guitar riff or a keyboard part or an idea and we'd basically spend a half a day to a whole day crafting it into a song - just playing it over and over, making slight changes each time until it really resonated with us.

"When we went in to re-record things properly last November - to actually make a record - we kept that same setup where we were all facing each other in a circle," he continues. "There was no digital recording, no decoration of our amps. On, I think, seven of the tunes Jeff is singing live vocals, maybe three or four feet away from my drums. So there's a live blending of all the instruments and all the voices together. I think that helps result in the direct vibe of this record."

FANS' BAND
With a career spanning over a decade, Wilco's had an inside view of a music industry thrust into chaos by emerging digital technologies. But while many of their contemporaries have bemoaned declining CD sales, Wilco has quietly adapted to the new era of music-making.

"With Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, we had a tour set up that we wanted to go ahead and do, even though there were problems with the label," says Kotche, alluding to Reprise Record's unceremonious dismissal of the band in 2001. "We streamed the album on the Web site and it turned out to be our best-selling record, even though people had the record for free for a while before that. I think it became obvious that there's no reason to try to make a buck off of every fan."

Since then, Wilco's hosted online "listening parties" and digitally streamed full albums for each of its records. "The whole reason for doing this is to get the music heard - and if people are able to hear it and like it, they'll buy the record or come to a show," Kotche says. "You know, I've met countless fans at shows who attest to me that they've burned the record or they've downloaded it illegally, but here they are at a Wilco show with three of their friends and they're wearing T-shirts and spreading the word and coming out to the shows.

"I think it just makes sense to just go ahead and give something back to the fans and let them hear the music. If they like it and it's good, they'll support the band in their own way, whether it's buying the record or by telling a friend about it."

(Sidebar)
LISTEN FOR FREE

Wilco's known for not just hiding its music on record store shelves, waiting for consumer dollars to release the tunes from the shrink-wrapped CD case. Instead, the band regularly hosts online pre-release "listening parties" and streams entire albums from its Web site. To listen to the band's most recent album, Sky Blue Sky, free of charge, head over to www.wilcoworld.net.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 | CiN Weekly
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