A shot in the arm from Wilco

So it wasn't a bad way to spend my 30th birthday. But it could have gone so wrong, as meeting one of your teenage heroes so often does.

Going to college in Illinois in the '90s made it hard not to know Wilco's music. When you live in "flyover county" you tend to hold fast to homegrown talent that explores that often peculiar mindset fostered in the frozen corn desert.

While the rest of the country was dealing with the grunge scene's slow demise into Stone Temple Pilots, and virtually nothing of note was creeping in from the coasts, Wilco was making some of the best rock albums in the world. Unfortunately, few were listening beyond the Chicago suburbs.

Wilco, who rose from the ashes of the alt-country act Uncle Tupelo, ground out a living playing college bars in Illinois, Missouri and Indiana along with serenading crowds leaving Chicago Fire soccer matches.

My friend, John, and I would spend evenings drinking Killian's Irish Red at his studio apartment while calling all the Tweedys in the Chicago phone book in hopes of speaking to Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy. Hey, we just wanted to tell him how much we dug his music.

You can imagine how excited I was when I heard Wilco was rolling through Bend on my 30th birthday weekend. It was the second time I'd seen them in Oregon, the first being a lackluster set at the WOW Hall in Eugene in 2003.

A fatalistic air hung around the band back then. Internal issues with bandmates coupled with Tweedy's wrestling match with pain killers left Wilco fans wondering how much was left in the tank.

Judging by the Aug. 23 show at the Les Schawb Amphitheater, I think Wilco is going to be around for a long time.

First of all, pin a medal on whoever designed that venue. My friend, whom I turned on to Wilco a year ago, and I sat to the left of the stage in the lawn area — perfect seats with good acoustics for an outdoor stage. The show carried an intimate vibe you rarely get from big rock shows.

Never a band to make a large splash upon taking the stage, Wilco snuck to their instruments while most of us were in the port-a-potties or in line for a $5 beer. The open chords of "You Are My Face" sent us back to the stage in a hurry.

The band took about seven songs to warm up, with the exception of "Muzzle of Bees." Tweedy forgot a verse of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and there was a failed attempt to get "War on War" off the ground that ended in disaster. Tweedy took a good ribbing from the drunken horde at front stage, who told him not to worry because Thom Yorke, singer for Radiohead, sometimes forgot the words to his songs, too.

It was during "Impossible Germany" that guitar god Nels Cline took over with one of the best solos in recent rock history. Wilco showed Bend that they were a ROCK BAND, by god.

From there they jumped into two songs from the "Mermaid Avenue" album, "California Stars" and "One by One," which happen to be my favorite tracks on that disc. The mellow mood ended right there, and the horde was awoken by "Shot in the Arm," which is as close to an anthem as Tweedy has ever written. Fists were raised, lyrics were chanted, the cycle was repeated.

I've seen the band four times, two of which were in their hometown, and I have to say their Bend set was as tight as I've seen.

With Cline in the mix, it's hard to find fault with the musicianship. A jazz guitarist by trade, Cline is able to manipulate guitar strings on rock songs like some demented puppet master while flailing around the stage doing some weird herky dance that would inspire chuckles if you weren't having your mind blown by his sound. He makes old songs new, and the band is better for it. Here's hoping he stays around for another tour.

As the sun fell, I found myself inching my way toward the front row. The crowd was raucous, but tolerable. As one four-song encore slid into a second five-song encore, dubbed a "longcore" by Tweedy, you knew you were getting your money's worth.

Halfway through the first encore, Tweedy mentioned this was the last full set the band would play for the year before heading out in support of Neil Young, whose influence on the band continues to this day.

Afterward, my friend convinced me to use my magical Mail Tribune press pass to gain backstage access. I grumbled at first. I like listening to rock stars. Meeting them? Not so much.

However, the band was down-to-earth and took the time to chat with everyone who approached them. Also, there was free beer and ping pong, which is never a bad thing.

Reach reporter Chris Conradat 776-4471.

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