Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Annie Zaleski reviews Wilson & Wilco at Farm Aid

Guest post by Annie Zaleski. She's the music editor at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, and you can read more of her work at the paper's music blog, A to Z.

St. Louis has pride in its native sons and daughters – whether the city is celebrating its baseball team (the playoffs-bound Cardinals) or musical exports (natives include hip-hop superstar Nelly). Fittingly, two more talented musicians the city calls its own – country singer Gretchen Wilson and Wilco singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy – made their hometowns proud earlier this afternoon.

Wilson is from tiny Pocahontas, Illinois, which is located about 45 minutes east of St. Louis. Her songs about unpretentious, hard-working men and women – those who prefer beer and whiskey, and jeans and T-shirts, to fancier things – went over well with the crowd. Her set kicked off with the 2004 hit "Here For the Party" (complete with a snippet of the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" beforehand) that was bolstered by her two ripping guitarists and electric-fiddler.

That mix of bluesy hard rock and hard-twanging country permeated the rest of her set – whether on the Black Crowes-ish new song "Work Hard, Play Harder" (which Wilson says is forthcoming on her new label, Redneck Records) or a version of the "Star Spangled Banner" that broke out after "Politically Uncorrect." This ending was especially poignant, because the shredding-heavy version of the song occurred as the band raised an American flag high above the stage.

Wilson's voice needs no effects or manipulation to sound clear and strong, and she was clearly humbled and honored to be performing. She was clearly having tons of fun, too: Right after "All Jacked Up" she took a generous swig of Jack Daniels whiskey, and then launched into "Redneck Woman." Clusters of women stood up around the pavilion and sang along proudly to the song's rallying cry: "Hell yeah!"

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy is also from a nearby town in Illinois – Belleville, to be exact – and started his career there in the late ‘80s with alt-country originators Uncle Tupelo. Wilco, however, has become a formidable live presence in recent years, a band ably incorporating equal parts soul, jazz and blues into its roots rock.

The band's talents shone on opening song "Bull Black Nova," from this year's Wilco (The Album). The song kept building and building in intensity and volume as it progressed, culminating in Tweedy and guitarists Nels Cline and Pat Sansone pounding out shrieking riffs and effects. The look on Tweedy's face was downright ferocious and intense – the kind you'd be scared to meet if you saw him in a dark alley.

Guitar heroics were a common thread throughout the six-song set, whether they involved Cline's nuanced plucking on "Impossible Germany" or Sansone's lazy windmills, Who-style, throughout the set. (Heck, the pair even had an entertaining guitar duel on final song "Hoodoo Voodoo.")

Wilco's set belied Tweedy's regional roots, thanks to "Casino Queen" and a fantastic, power-pop-leaning "Heavy Metal Drummer," a song which references the once-popular St. Louis entertainment district the Landing. He also made a counterpoint comment to Wilson's declarations, by making it a point to say that "not everybody who grows up here is a redneck."

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