FUV Essentials: Carmel Holt on Wilco
Wilco (The Tote Bag). (photo courtesy of Carmel Holt)
“Who is your favorite band?” is a question I get asked a lot. To be honest, answering that question feels like a big statement because there are so many bands I have a deep abiding love for, but I can break it down like this. There are two: one from childhood and one from adulthood.
My musical foundation as a child was The Beatles. Even though they broke up three years before I was born, I was already a diehard fan by the time John Lennon died. I was 7 then, and I will always remember the day he was shot as the first rock ‘n’ roll death that made me cry. I also trace my musical path and subsequent entry into a radio career to that stack of Beatles records I inherited from my sisters.
The very same year that I started my first radio job in Woodstock, New York, Wilco released its debut album, A.M. (and yes, I geek out on the fact that A.M. was named to reference Top 40 radio stations and came out my first year at an F.M. station). So in a sense, The Beatles led me to working in radio, working in radio led me to Wilco, and my love for both — the job and the band — has been steadfast now for over 20 years.
Out of the gate, Wilco’s first three albums — A.M., Being There and Summerteeth — were excellent, and each a step farther away from the alt-country of Jeff Tweedy’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo. But like many fans, the turning point for me was 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Its sonic vision, palette and adventurous textures were a quantum leap for Wilco, and opened my eyes to what was possible — combining the rootsiness of their sound with artistic dissonance and noise. Moreover, the strange and triumphant tale of the album’s path from record label rejection to free, online release and eventual re-release on a different label revealed something else: a bold, uncompromising commitment to art, reinvention and exploration. I wholeheartedly love their music, but this realization about their ethos and approach was what made me such a diehard fan.
The phrase “expect the unexpected” applies perfectly to Wilco, even as the band now begins its third decade. They have not only continued to evolve musically, but have also shown us how creating a microcosm for their creative output translates into an inclusive macrocosm — reflected in their aptly titled website, “WilcoWorld.” It extends to their rehearsal, recording studio and storage space, The Loft, in their hometown of Chicago, where they not only produce their own music, but also invite the other artists, like Mavis Staples, to record. Then there is the band’s own record label, dBpm Records, and their bi-annual Solid Sound Festival, set at the amazing, post-industrial complex-turned contemporary art campus in the Berkshires, MASS MoCA. All of it embodies the adventurous nature of the band, and that spirit is contagious.
At Solid Sound, thousands of fans have come to relish the opportunity to mix and mingle with band members, attend pop-up performances in the galleries, and experience one-of-a-kind Wilco shows like the first-ever, all-request covers set and last year’s acoustic concert (also a first). Each member of the band also gets to showcase their talents in side project performances, workshops, and collaborations. That fusion of Wilco-curated music and comedy performances, the surrounding modern art exhibits and the location is something totally unprecedented. It’s also decidedly un-festival-like, meaning the experience is not the crowded, commercialized, party-hearty music festival best-suited to young kids. Nor is it stuffy, highbrow and inaccessible. It’s perfect for creative-minded grown-ups. Like Wilco.
It was at Solid Sound three years ago that Wilco created a miniature replica of The Loft in one of the galleries of MASS MoCA. I had the honor of hosting a video tour of the exhibit with Jeff Tweedy and chatting with him as he walked us through the displays. It was the first time I had met Jeff, and the first time I had ever done an interview like this — a radio host on camera with visuals to discuss. I was nervous and excited, and the experience was exhilarating and fun. It occurs to me now that the timeline and the journey of Wilco is not unlike the one that radio has been on since the ‘90s.
The changing landscape of the music business and listening habits along with the challenges and opportunities that come with the digital age have given us new ways to interact and participate in music. Wilco has accomplished what we strive for: to work with perceived limitations and turn them into opportunities for creativity, to stay relevant and become more than disembodied voices, to offer fellow music fans a chance to get closer to the process, to be inspired, and most importantly, to keep reinventing ourselves without losing sight of the spirit of discovery that got us interested in music and radio to begin with. I leave every Wilco show I go to reminded of this, and it always makes me fall in love with them all over again.
I could go on about what a consummate musician each band member is. Nels Cline is nothing short of a guitar god and Glenn Kotche is one of the most artistic, masterful drummers and percussionists I have ever seen. With Mikael Jorgensen, Pat Sansone, and the longest-running original Wilco member, John Stirratt, the current lineup of the band is sounding better than they ever have. Jeff Tweedy has succeeded in surrounding himself with the absolute best — people and musicians — still seemingly eager and excited to continue pushing boundaries and making great music for us to enjoy.
But I will leave it at this: The Beatles started something new by establishing popular music, giving us anthems when we needed them (“All you need is love!”) while never compromising their creativity — and the fans still willingly came along. Twenty-five years later, Wilco was born. Now they’ve been going twice as long as The Beatles, and continually reinvent and redefine themselves and what it means to be a band in the modern age, which feels more reciprocal than any other musician/fan relationship I can think of. I can’t wait to see what the next decade of Wilco will bring, but you can be sure wherever the band is headed, “Wilco will love you, baby.”