- Wilco is back with a new album, "The Whole Love"
- The group embarked on its first tour since starting an independent label
- Concertgoers go crazy during the show's extended instrumentals
Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt arrive in the balcony box overlooking the stage before CNN is done setting up the camera equipment. It's a little awkward at first, as the only two original Wilco band members gingerly slalom cables, light stands and other assorted, potentially-hazardous obstacles to the edge of the box.
As they look down over the low rail -- far too low to keep a standing, grown man from falling -- the worry is that one of them might have a fear of heights. Fortunately, neither does, though both of them -- and all three of the CNN crew -- flinch a little when a heavy, hooded light abruptly loosens and clangs down its stand just as the interview gets started.
This is the first tour for the unflappable Wilco since the band started its own label, dBpm (decibels per minute), earlier this year and released their acclaimed album "The Whole Love" in September. New music has meant an aggressive marketing campaign, including the band's first official music videos in years (for the warped-pop gem "Born Alone" and the Nick Lowe cover "I Love My Label"), an hour-long "Live on Letterman" performance and a very active Facebook account.
As documented in the 2003 film "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", Wilco has had its battles with record labels.
Despite ties to Warner Bros. since 1994, the band has maintained as much independence as possible over the years, reaching out to fans, both by traditional methods and by embracing the Internet even when much of the music industry was still fighting it (Wilco's landmark "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was streamed in full online in September 2001, about seven months before the CD was released).
Stirratt said Wilco's audience created its own offline web years ago.
"There's always been a great, really in touch community surrounding the band. And in a way, that was sort of a pre-social network with all things Wilco," he said.
Tweedy said when Wilco's contract with Nonesuch Records expired after 2009's "Wilco (The Album)," that sense of community led to the formation of dBpm.
"I don't feel like we can trust anybody else to know our audience and treat our audience the way we want them to be treated," Tweedy explained. "I don't think there's anybody out there who can do it better than us or really wants to spend the amount of time [needed]."
Part of treating the audience well is treating their audience's hometown well. Wilco spreads its whole love to the community by supporting local food banks and charities that promote sustainability.
Tweedy said that's an outgrowth of the band's philosophy.
"If we're going to go soak up all of this energy in your town, and ask you to come see us, and ask you to pay for parking and all these different things, we feel like we should behave as good citizens in that town and participate for that one day or those days that we're there," he said.
On the musical front, Tweedy is self-deprecating about his guitar-playing skills.
"I think John would be OK with me saying that we don't feel like we're the virtuosos in the band," Tweedy said, as Stirratt laughed and agreed.
"We've grown a lot by having real virtuosos in the band, and it's helped us grow and get better at our instruments quite a bit," Tweddy added. "And that's been really fun. And I think that it's great to be able to hang with them and not be played into the ground."
Concertgoers go especially crazy during the show's extended instrumentals, highlighted by guitarist Nels Cline's incendiary guitar solos. The lineup of Tweedy, Stirratt, Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and guitarist-keyboardist-singer Patrick Sansone, has been intact for seven years now. That's the longest stretch Wilco has gone without any personnel changes.
"There's finally this thing that maybe John and I have aspired to for a lot of years: to have a cast of creative people that are sympathetic to each other and feel like making things together that we can all be proud of," Tweedy said.
While focusing on the new songs from "The Whole Love" live, Wilco also is showcasing the depth and breadth of its catalog. During a two-night gig in Atlanta, the group played 37 songs, including 35 originals culled from nine different albums. They also jammed on two Nick Lowe covers they performed with the man himself, who's been an influence as well as the opening act for the first couple of the U.S. legs of the "Whole Love" world tour.
Stirratt said fans are responding positively to the new tunes, which are usually seven to nine slots in the set lists.
"[Fans] don't know the words yet, but they're very excited," he said.
"The Whole Love" debuted at number 5 in Billboard last month. Critics and fans are praising its extended, noise-filled opener "Art of Almost," the 10 diverse songs that follow, and the epic 12-minute folk ballad "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend), which ends the album much like Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde finale "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."
"We're really proud of it and we're really excited to get to play these songs," Tweedy said.
And Wilco will keep following its muse, wherever it leads, despite how unsettling the great unknown might be.
"You've got to do what makes you the most happy. That's how we got here. That's exactly what we've been doing for a long, long time and things have followed suit somehow from that," Tweedy said. "But there's always going to be insecurity when you put yourself up on a stage and say, 'Look at me!' There are people that are really good at that and good at making themselves believe that they're invincible. But I don't believe there's many of them that aren't crazy."