The audience didn’t know what to make of the eerie, dissonant sounds coming from the four musicians on stage at the United Palace in New York on April 16. . They stopped; the crowd applauds, a little confused. Then the musicians continued to play for another 20 minutes of their unannounced opening set for the second of eight Wilco shows celebrating the 20th anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At times, a hint of familiar melody crept into the otherwise dizzying composition. At the end, the string quartet received a standing ovation.
The idea was to bring back some of the challenge that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had the first time – the feeling of “What the hell is this?” than the music conjured up in the suits of the major-label that infamously rejected Wilco’s fourth album for release in 2001. By the time the album hit fans on the internet that fall, another narrative had begun to take shape, and by the time it was released as a CD in April 2002, most independent connoisseurs largely agreed that YHF was not a mistake at all, but Wilco’s melancholic masterpiece.
Twenty years later, this story is untouchable canon. Nonesuch, the label that rescued the album from corporate purgatory in 2002, announces a giant deluxe reissue of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot today, September 16: eleven LPs and eight CDs containing dozens of never-before-seen demos, samples, instrumentals and live performances, plus liner notes by rock historian Bob Mehr. It’s a treasure trove for the kind of Wilco fans who still know the words to YHF demos like “Cars Can’t Escape” and remember seeing the high-flying shows they played this fall, or wish they had.
The upcoming box set reflects the respectful archival treatment given to classic rock landmarks like Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin IV in a satisfying way for those long-time fans. You get the feeling that might not thrill Jeff Tweedy, though. It was never great to look back; which is why he blasted Wilco’s mid-’90s roots-rock version and guided the band to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the first place. “Doing these shows was very difficult for us,” he admitted to the New York crowd on Saturday night. bis. “In our career, we have tried not to be nostalgic. We resisted the temptation.
He credited the avant-garde chamber music of the Aizuri Quartet with representing “the world of beauty and creativity that we wanted to be a part of” when they made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “That’s what we were looking for,” he added from the stage. “Something that was do not rock’n’roll.
Performing the full album with the original instruments used for its recording, plus the string quartet and a horn section to help restore its shifting and moving studio arrangements, Wilco managed to give Yankee Hotel Foxtrot rediscover some of his arty and ambitious side. The quality that stands out most clearly, however, is the darkness at the heart of the album: the frank streak of self-loathing that runs through “Radio Cure” (“There’s Something Wrong With Me”) through to “Ashes of American Flags” (“I know I’d die if I could come back again”) and “Reservations” (“How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like?”). Hearing some of these songs scattered throughout other setlists, these lines might pass, but taken together, live and in person, they have an intensity you don’t get on every Wilco show.
Countering those lows were the warm country soul balm of “Jesus, Etc.”, the brilliant power-pop outing of “Heavy Metal Drummer” and the exultant elation of the horn section of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” – songs you might love to hear any night with Wilco, but ones that felt especially rewarding in that context. (The words “I miss the innocence I knew” hit differently in 2022.) The band sounded composed and focused; drummer Glenn Kotche, who joined the band during the filming of YHFplayed like a maniac, and guitarist Nels Cline, arriving two years after the album’s release, handled every electric mini-solo and crescendo of loud feedback with precision.
At the end of the main set, Tweedy bowed to the audience as the spotlights turned on and the band held on to the murky underwater sounds and slow piano chords. They held this coda for a few long minutes, honoring the album’s eerie pain as well as its moments of redemption.
Part of the emotional impact of listening YHF now comes to know that Tweedy has crossed over to the other side. He’s been sober for years, has a happy family life, and generally seems like a very creative guy. Wilco could have imploded in 2001, but they didn’t.
For Tweedy, the tense mythology surrounding the creation of the album has always been a bit of a stretch. “The making of music part, on every level, for any record I’ve ever been on, has been the thing that’s sustained me all my life,” he said, speaking with RS a few days before the start of the anniversary shows. “That’s the part I love. It generally proceeded without conflict. …Even in the midst of some personality shake-ups, all the records feel that way to me. Definitely, even the ones where I look back and know I was in terrible shape, physically and emotionally, my memories of making music are like, ‘Wow, that was a part of the day I felt good .’
In Saturday’s New York encore, he dedicated a few songs to multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who left Wilco under acrimonious circumstances after making YHF, and who unfortunately died of an overdose a few years later. It was a bittersweet and generous recognition of someone who contributed so much to the creative effervescence of those years.
Wilco then closed the encore with a searing three-song set from 1996 Be there – “Red and Blue Eyes”, “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”, “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”. They sounded great, like the loose, Stones-y rock & roll band that Tweedy would spend the next five years running away from at full speed. These days there is no need to fight it. They know they can be both groups and more.