Wilco: Ashes of American Flags (Warners DVD)

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Wilco: Ashes of American Flags (Warners DVD)

Part way through this insightful, beautifully shot mix of live concert footage and Wilco on the road, mainman Jeff Tweedy notes how he loves representational art and music in that the music can paint a picture which can be etched in the memory, an image of something like an urban landscape.

By deliberate counterpoint one of the band members is then heard saying in a voice-over that Tweedy is a conceptualist, feels alienated and unsure, and is just trying to make it all work . . . although he adds that he's "not sure how unsure [Tweedy] is sometimes".

Exactly: Tweedy is one smart cookie and far from uncertain about some things. And here when he discusses music and how people have imprinted a purity of purpose on it which bears little relation to the truth (Hank Williams was as interested as Madonna in how his songs were selling he observes with a laugh) you can hear the voice of a man who has plenty of time on the road to think . . . and turns his mind to serious matters.

Interestingly the concert footage here -- sometimes very up-close, cleverly angled or having figures emerge from or disappear into darkness -- has a warmth to it that isn't always apparent in the road footage. This re-enforces the band's comments about a disappearing America where downtowns are now shells and WalMart/ suburban mall culture has killed cities. It would be easy to get weepy-eyed and nostalgic about towns in the old days (as some are about folk music?) but they speak of very personal experiences of urban change which drives the point home. 

Aside from the customary shots of the big skies of America, there is a desolation about this America which Brendan Canty and Christoph Green have framed. It is as if the stage is where life (certainly for the band) is at its best.

And in these songs from shows at classic American venues (among them Ryman's in Nashville, Tipitina's in New Orleans, Cains in Tulsa) the band delivers utterly committed and often joyous performances.

Those (few) who complained that when Wilco played here they were too loud and guitarist Nels Cline was over-indulgent have missed the point. Those people seem trapped in the notion that Wilco are a country-rock band -- but they long since ceased to be that (I guess they complained about Lucinda Williams' recent show along the same lines?) and here the howling gale of distortion and feedback on Handshake Drugs pushes the point home.

Cline is a man who also knows how to construct a guitar solo (check Impossible Germany here) and if he tends towards a brittle and deafening crescendo sometimes then so be it. It rocks powerfully.

Here too we see Tweedy (in a Nudie suit at some shows) in fine humour also, and if the whole thing feels a little lacking in spontaneous moments off stage then it hardly matters as they thunder through what reads like a greatest hits set from band that never had a hit: Shot in the Arm, Monday, Wishful Thinking, Heavy Metal Drummer (in which a bra is thrown on-stage) and I'm The Man Who Loves You and others in the extra footage.

Wilco's previous film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart was one of the great rockumentaries, the story of a band trying to define itself, almost breaking up and being dropped by its record company. Ashes of American Flags, despite the suggestions of the title, is about the rewards further along the road.

I guess in part they come when an audience sings your songs back at you. 


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