Custom House Square, Belfast
Friday, 10th September, 2010
The arrival of Wilco in Belfast is surely one of the absolute highlights of a packed Open House festival programme, the revered Godfathers of alt-country having never played in the city before.
But before the main act, we are treated to the exquisite pleasures of Field Music. In some bands, instruments fight for space to make their voice heard, all overlapping sound and noise; not so with Field Music. Each performer has their own rigidly defined area in the songs, a corner in which they are able to exploit their instrument's tonal and melodic sensibilities to the max. It's a jittery, disjointed sound, but one that is almost entirely satisfying, with quiet, angular passages alternating with outbursts of expressive rock and roll lyricism.
However, this separation of sound is not an ideal shared by The Felice Brothers. The New York five-piece bound on stage with an effervescent, almost drunken energy, and rarely take their foot off the accelerator. Captivating performers, The Felice Brothers succeed at capturing the sensation of stumbling upon an afterhours jam session, where the band just won't quit, needing to get one more song out of their system before they expire.
It's entertaining, but it's not an entirely satisfying experience when purely looking at the songs themselves. The endless Dylan vocalisations threaten to become tiring, whilst the messiness of the performance leads to many of the songs sounding like they're being made up as they go along. However, the Felice Brothers aren't about some kind of clean-cut, anodyne actualisation of what roots music might be like, instead cutting to the heart of the matter, and giving you a good time in the process.
But ultimately, we're all here for Wilco. Main-man Jeff Tweedy is a pivotal figure in the development of alt-country, from his "John the Baptist" role in alt-country forefathers Uncle Tupelo, to his 15 years with Wilco - refining and redefining both their own music, and that of an entire generation of musicians ploughing their trade down the cosmic American highway.
It's a mammoth set, but it's not entirely without problems. The band has a tendency to get stuck in third gear, opting for their mid-paced material, throwing out song after song which gazes out onto the wild frontier at twilight, full of pregnant possibilities. For the faithful, it's an absolute treat, but compared to the mathematical precision of Field Music, or the wild abandon of the Felice Brothers, Wilco come across as mannered and safe, a band who are reliably good, but short on the excitement factor.
Ultimately it doesn't matter, as Wilco at their most safe and relaxed is about twenty times as good as many other bands at their peak, but perhaps a bit more balance between the different faces of this band would be nice. They've done it before, but it might just be time for Tweedy to inject an element of danger back into his music. And if he does so, rest assured, Belfast is waiting for him.