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,
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.
wish I could remember his name, because I’d like to email him on Monday,”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
was as if Tweedy was saying, “Yeah, we’ve made it to Madison Square Garden,
but we haven’t compromised—take this!”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.