“Yeah, we know what you want,” Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy tells the crowd assembled on a balmy late summer evening in a beautiful park open only to residents of Birmingham’s bohemian suburb of Moseley.
It’s 10:25 pm. There’s only one song left, then. “Billy! Get up here, man,” and with that, out comes Billy Bragg to reprise “California Stars” from the wonderful “Mermaid Avenue” records the two artists made. And if the process probably wasn’t as much fun as the subsequent records, then that five minutes is a timely reminder of the power of music to unite.
MV had been hoping for the duet since Bragg had been announced as a replacement for The Proclaimers, and it didn’t disappoint.
Earlier in the evening, Bragg had played his solo set. A very similar one to that which he’d played late last year opening for Paul Heaton, actually. And one which reminds how vital Billy Bragg remains.
He’s got these hour-long sets locked down at this point. “The Day The World Turned Upside Down,” complete with the thought that “no man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain,” is one from the early days, but this is a more nuanced socialism in 2023. “Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key,” one from the “….Avenue” settings, is proof that there ain’t nobody that can sing like Bill, but “King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood” is proof that he’s still doing it, he’s writing songs that matter, that mean something.
He plays a brand new song that excoriates “the rich who keep the poor down,” and he’s changed “Sexuality” to reflect Trans Rights and dedicates “21st Century Modern” to “blokes my age” who have trouble adjusting. “There Is Power In A Union” rouses the rabble, “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards” is his best song, still, and CJ Hillman together with JJ Stone provides some superb accompaniment.
The last one is “Just me and you,” says the man himself, and as ever, “A New England” benefits from the “third verse for Kirsty McColl,” and as ever, we all benefit from an hour in the company of Stephen William Bragg. He’s probably the artist I’ve seen most, and each time, he never fails to inspire.
Wilco are about halfway through their set and playing “Misunderstood.” Somewhere it all clicks. The reasons Wilco is so good are all on show. One minute the song is doing one thing and Jeff Tweedy is getting the audience to sing “Still love rock n roll,” the next, it explodes into the night sky. As much as Wilco is hypnotic, they can shake you whenever they want.
Tweedy and fellow founder member John Stirrat have been doing this for 30 years (hell, the lineup hasn’t altered in 19) and they have total confidence.
A band that changes the setlist every night, here they start with “I Am My Mother” and knock out ‘Am I Trying To Break Your Heart” early; it ends in a maelstrom of noise.
Along the way, each band member gets a chance in the spotlight. “Handshake Drugs” is all about Nels Cline’s guitar work, while “Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull” is elaborate and almost like a jam. There’s time for a new one, “Evicted,” and the soul-filled organ of “Jesus, Etc” is a highlight (and credit to Mikael Jorgensen for that.) Glenn Kotche’s drums underpin “The Late Greats,” and “Heavy Metal Dummer” underlines how good a record “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was (and it scarcely seems believable that it is 20 years almost). “Shot in The Arm” has been finishing recent sets, and you can see why. There’s no encore after it tonight, though; instead, “Falling Apart (Right Now)” is arguably the most country moment.
Which brings us back to “California Stars” and all that, but if that stole the show, then it was an unconventional festival ender. Devoid of bombast and with its glory in its subtlety, it is 90 minutes that remind us of the majesty of Wilco.