Wilco, Flaming Lips prove they're good enough for the Garden


February 1, 2005


NEW YORK—A few years ago, when Chicago’s alternative/avant-garde heroes Wilco were searching for a major-label deal, a talent scout from Elektra Records came to hear the band at Liberty Lunch, a mid-sized rock club in Austin, Texas.

“I remember him shaking his head and saying, ‘They’re good, but I can’t imagine them ever playing Madison Square Garden,’” Tony Margherita, the group’s manager, recalled on Friday night as he basked in the energy radiating from the stage at the New York venue, the most famous arena in America.

“I wish I could remember his name, because I’d like to email him on Monday,” Margherita said.

Bands like Wilco and the Flaming Lips aren’t supposed to play the Garden, the stadium where Jimi Hendrix performed and Led Zeppelin filmed “The Song Remains the Same.” But both groups have come a long way from their origins at dive bars in Downstate Belleville and Norman, Okla. They now share similar positions as two of the most popular “underground” bands in America, selling half a million records each, and to cap the most successful year of their careers, they threw the coolest and biggest party in the rock world on New Year’s Eve.

The show did not sell out, but promoters were pleased to fill more than 11,000 of the 14,000 seats. Many concertgoers traveled from across the country, booker Sam Kinken said, with the largest contingent outside of New York hailing from Chicago.

The concert kicked off with indie-rockers Sleater-Kinney, and the Washington State trio was the only band that didn’t seem to belong at the venerated stadium. Its fragile, guitar-driven art-punk was lost in the vast expanse, and the group wasn’t helped by the fact that thousands of concertgoers were delayed entry as police tried to defuse a man brandishing a rifle at 1 Penn Plaza, the office building above the Garden.

Paranoia ran high in New York as the warm weather drew a million people to Times Square a few blocks to the north for the traditional New Year’s countdown and ball drop. But the Daily News later described the action at Penn Plaza as a minor incident involving “a boozed-up mechanic” distraught that he was separated from his family, and it ended without injury.

The Flaming Lips left behind carnage of a different sort, with mountains of confetti, hundreds of giant balloons, puddles of fake blood and two dozen costumed plushies and strippers littering the Garden by the time they finished their usual celebratory multimedia extravaganza, which was similar to the joyous gigs they brought to Chicago’s Metro and Aragon the preceding two New Year’s Eves.

The Lips have been touring behind “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” for more than two years, and they are long overdue in revamping their set. Contrary to Internet rumors that this was a “retirement” gig, they are scheduled to record their next album and finally finish their film “Christmas on Mars” by the end of 2005. But even if you’ve seen it before, their mix of gonzo psychedelic-pop music and cheerful mayhem never gets old or seems stale, especially on New Year’s, and the crowd responded with raucous glee.

Wilco’s set started off shakily with one of guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s misguided gestures of defiance as its producer, avant-garde instigator Jim O’Rourke, joined the sextet for an indulgent version of “Less Than You Think,” the pretentious and tuneless art-wank noise jam that is the sole blemish on 2004’s otherwise brilliant “A Ghost Is Born.”

It was as if Tweedy was saying, “Yeah, we’ve made it to Madison Square Garden, but we haven’t compromised—take this!”

The show quickly kicked into gear, however, as the band launched into the propulsive “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” introducing a block of tunes from the new album and its predecessor, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” When the reconfigured band of Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone kicked off the current tour at the Vic Theatre last June, I wrote that this was Wilco’s fieriest lineup ever, and the group has only gotten tighter, more confident and more inspired over the last six months on the road.

Clad in baby-blue pajamas adorned with cartoon bunny rabbits, a relaxed and self-assured Tweedy showed no signs of his notorious stage fright, and he actually seemed to be having a blast as he ranted about the Bush administration when introducing “Jesus, etc.,” led the band through extended instrumental rave-ups, and indulged in a series of goofy covers by the pop and arena-rock heroes of his youth.

Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight” followed the countdown to 2005; Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” came as one of several well-deserved encores; “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain and Tennille actually seemed sort of cool in Wilco’s hands, and Lips drummer-turned-multi-instrumental-genius Steven Drozd returned to bashing the kit for a rousing version of the 1969 hit, “Something in the Air.”

“We’ve got to get together sooner or later / Because the revolution’s here,” Tweedy sang as he covered the Thunderclap Newman classic.

Increasingly outspoken about his anti-war politics as the year progressed, Tweedy seemed to be saying that the fight did not end last November on Election Day, and anything can be accomplished if people join together and work long and hard enough. On this night, in this venue, that sentiment didn’t seem like naive or misguided optimism.

If cheerfully idiosyncratic and wonderfully inventive bands like Wilco and the Flaming Lips can make it to Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve, than anything may indeed be possible.