This week, we have pretty much the polar opposite of that experience in the new DVD from Wilco, called Ashes of American Flags. This is a beautifully shot, recorded, and edited film that shows the band on stage in five quintessentially American venues during its 2008 tour. It was released this past Saturday to celebrate Record Store Day. Jeff Tweedy had this to say about the occasion:
“My introduction to a lot of great music and to the ‘music business’ came from hanging around and eventually working at independent record stores in Belleville, IL and St. Louis many years ago. It’s the life I know. Nothing beats browsing in your favorite store, listening to music, finding something new or old that you’ve been searching for, being ignored by the store clerks, all that. And without these stores, there’s no way Wilco would still be around. They’ve been with us from the very beginning, through thick and thin. Even if I wasn’t in a band, I’d still support Record Store Day. It’s a great thing and I’m glad we could do something special with them.”
And that something is very special indeed. Beginning with a show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK, we watch as the band moves across the country, arriving next at Tipitina’s in New Orleans, followed by the Mobile Civic Center in Alabama, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and ending up at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.
Ashes of American Flags was produced and directed in HD by Christoph Green along with Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, who says that the film “was captured completely on the fly with a terrifying lack of planning. ” The resulting 88-minute film brings us 13 songs from the Wilco repertoire, and nicely showcases the band’s brilliant musicianship, and Tweedy’s adept way with a song.
Mention must be made of guitarist Nels Cline, who joined the band in 2004. I’m not sure there’s a more interesting guitar player at work today. Cline is simply stunning on every song, with each solo seeming to increase in intensity. I really don’t think I’ve seen such an imaginative guitarist since the heyday of Jimi Hendrix himself. When Cline, Tweedy, and Pat Sansone (who also joined the band in 2004, along with keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen) team up for a three guitar attack on “Handshake Drugs,” the result is extraordinary.
“Via Chicago” is another strong effort and demonstrates what separates Wilco from your average alt-country band. With Tweedy singing what would seem to be a low-key folk song, the band simply goes crazy for a short time, while Tweedy just continues singing his song, until the band rejoins him as if nothing has happened. This happens three times. It’s surprising, and powerful. “Impossible Germany,” from the last Wilco studio album, Sky Blue Sky, is another highlight.
Tweedy formed Wilco in 1994 following the breakup of the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. “At some point, representational art lost its appeal for me,” says Tweedy. Indeed.
In offstage moments, we see the country much as Wilco did, from the window of a bus. There’s discussion about the “Wal-Martization” of America, illustrated by footage of decaying, nearly abandoned downtowns, in that condition because people have fled to the suburbs. By way of introducing the band, Tweedy talks about them individually. We learn that drummer/percussionist Glenn Kotche “saved the band,” that Pat Sansone is their most natural musician, and that bassist John Stirratt, aside from Tweedy the only original member of Wilco remaining, is Tweedy’s constant, and keeps him grounded. We also learn that touring in a rock and roll band takes a physical toll on musicians, as we watch Kotche soaking his hands, and Cline applying ice to his neck.
There is little doubt that Wilco is one of the most powerful live bands working today. With “Ashes of American Flags” they have provided us with the proof.
Here’s the trailer from the film: