Jeff Tweedy - vocals
Jay Bennett - guitar
John Stirrat - bass
Ken Coomer - drums
Bob Egan - pedal steel
Ever since the '80s, when Bono famously defaced its concrete with a can of spray paint, Justin Herman Plaza at San Francisco's Embarcadero Center has played host to plenty of historic free concerts. Now we can add this '90s appearance by Wilco to the list of now hard-to-believe events there.
As part of KFOG-FM's Sky Concert series, Wilco weighed in with a set that was more Replacements than Americana, more punk rock than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and definitely rare in its origin as it took place back when Wilco proper were still just Jeff Tweedy, Jay Bennett, John Stirratt, Ken Coomer, and Max Johnston. My, how the times have a'changed…
Opening with "I Must Be High" (although you will find this as an outtake at the end of the show here due to sound problems during the first two tracks) from their 1995 debut album, A.M., and proceeding to run down the songs on their breakthrough Being There, Wilco found an appreciative audience in SF thanks to their benefactor KFOG, one of the few album-oriented rock stations that was taking a chance on new bands at the time. "I think they play this one on the radio," says Tweedy rather disingenuously before the band lights into their road anthem, "Monday." Of course, he knows full well the only reason the band's drawn a crowd is due to said airplay, but whatever: Tweedy's still a newly designated frontman and he's working out the position. "Bob's loud today, isn't he… That's because he's older than the rest of us and he's more deaf," he cracks about pedal steel player Bob Egan, before swearing to give up stand-up.
"I Got You (At the End of the Century)" shows the kind of promise Wilco would fulfill on later albums, but the majority of this set is devoted to your basic rock band stuff: Though Tweedy tried making further jokes about computers and bands like the Fixx, they mostly fell flat. Wilco are better when they shut up and rock, as on "Someday Soon," which rambles like a car out on Highway 61 and "Hotel Arizona" (which hints at a growing obsession with the subject of rock stardom). The folksy "New Madrid" by Uncle Tupelo sounds just fine amidst the newer tunes from Being There. But while "Kingpin" tries to reach for a Memphis soul vibe, "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" shows Wilco was better back then at just plain rocking.
"A band that knows how to have a good time," says the announcer at encore time. Yes, they do, though in later years we'd come to find that Wilco weren't always the fun and games they appeared to be. And yet for a brief moment in time in a downtown San Francisco office plaza, Wilco rocked as if they were the only band in the world and their songs the only ones that mattered. Was life really still so simple in 1997? Yes Virginia, we think it was.