The last time we saw Wilco on film was in Sam Jones’ now-legendary 2002 I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, an intimate rock doc chronicling the band’s departure from alt-country to more experimental territories with the controversial recording of their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
And though the highly acclaimed record would turn out to be the Chicago-based band’s bestselling release – and become one of the most influential American rock albums of the decade – the band seemed at the threshold of breaking down.
They were uncomfortable with each other, the recording process felt laboured and artistic differences ensued in the mixing process.
A lot has happened since – including a turnaround in lineup – and this time around, on Wilco Live: Ashes of American Flags, everything is different.
“I wouldn’t want anything to change in this band,” says frontman Jeff Tweedy halfway through the live performance doc directed by Brendan Canty and Cristoph Green.
It’s a rare statement from a band that’s never been averse to change, and it aptly reflects the group’s dynamism in the film.
Wilco, at last, feels comfortable. And confident.
Shot in the early days of 2008 on the road between Washington, Nashville, New Orleans and Tulsa, the live performance film documents a highly cohesive touring band at the top of its game.
Interspersed with short interviews, backstage vignettes and beautiful road shots of America’s highways and byways as seen from the tour bus, AOAF plays like a hybrid between Wilco’s greatest hits performed live and a road movie.
Having toured the country many times over, the band displays an affinity for small-town America – a sentiment made clear in the personal interviews that lament the “Wal-Martization” of America – and the old historic venues that helped them launch their career.
They stop in old ghost towns and rural communities along the way, eat in small diners that have fallen by the wayside and visit roadside landmarks.
But at the centre of the movie lies the music. Playing both old and new favourites, Wilco puts on a riveting show.
Besides Tweedy’s cryptic songwriting and semi-awkward, semi-charismatic stage presence, the highlight of the performances here is guitarist Nels Kline’s jolting guitar riffs.
And though the band seems effortless on stage, we are given a rare glimpse of the physical demands the road and prolonged performances create.
In a post-show scene, Kline lies near-paralyzed on a bench backstage as drummer Glenn Kotche nurses a bleeding hand and Tweedy gets his vocal cords checked out.
But undoubtedly, the band wouldn’t have it any other way.
Published in Volume 65, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 16, 2010)