On Monday night Wilco paid a visit to the Fillmore in San Francisco, and like just about everyone else these days, singer Jeff Tweedy had politics all over the brain. "Thanks for all the requests," he said to an electrified crowd after the band rocked through a couple opening numbers. "We'll probably play 73 percent of them. And that's not an exit poll. That's an exact count."
The veteran Chicago band played at least that much of "A Ghost is Born" -- one of the year's best rock albums, in a year that forgot just about everything else but the presidential race. The new recording is a tour de force, on par with the band's 1996 offering "Being There." In the last eight years, Wilco's recordings often detoured into a little too much noise-for-noise's-sake, leaving you wanting to peel back the frustrating layers of grit and snatch the melodic gems buried underneath. You could forgive them, because Tweedy clearly was fed up with the late '90s alt-country zeitgeist that sprouted a few too many shaggy haircuts and Fender Telecasters in the urban clubs. There were some definite highlights on the "Mermaid Avenue" recordings and on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," but by the latter, the band was flying the precarious banner of experimentalism and had let its country-rock roots fade far in the rear view mirror.
Now they've found their way back onto the road, picking up some serious Beatles (especially Sgt. Pepper's-esque piano clusters) and Sonic Youth (swirling guitars, scattershot cymbals) along the way. "Ghost" is muscular and imperfect and has plenty of edge, and while Tweedy's divergent lyrics have never been particularly political, the new music seemed made for the moment at hand.
As did the technology. "You guys are being cast on the Internets," Tweedy grinned at one point, reminding the crowd of the concert's Webcast. "Say hello to the folks in cyberspace." The crowd roared its approval. "Cyberspace is definitely a blue state," he added.
There was also Tweedy's preamble to "War on war" from "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." "So when's this war gonna end?" he asked. "It's just gonna keep going and going and going, isn't it. Only if we don't speak up.
"Don't mourn," he said, managing not to sound too preachy to the Bay Area choir. "Organize."
A bit later in the evening, following a blistering version of "Monday," Tweedy let loose some more red-state, blue-state riffage. Noting that it was getting late, he pointed out how the San Francisco crowd was a bona fide example of America's current cultural divide. "See, in blue states this is what we do. We dance and sing on a Monday night. That's one difference, anyway."
As the two-hour-plus show throttled to a close (one guy behind me exclaimed, "They don't have any songs left!") the minor psychedelia of lights playing against the stage backdrop morphed into a few seconds of dark footage -- the big bad fella himself. There he was, in all his smirking glory, Dubya. And sure enough, he was firing off that infamous one-fingered victory salute.
Bush's mug, of course, set up what was perhaps the best political barb of the evening. The band proceeded to bid farewell by laying into Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper."
That signature, snarling guitar line never sounded quite so good.