It's been a year since the storied release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot upgraded Wilco from earnest retro rockers to insta-indie-legends. But, despite the college-rock origins of indie-rock, there now seems to be very little overlap between cool critics' best-of-the-year top 10 picks and the typical college students' playlists. So when Wilco was announced to play the Last Day of Classes concert at Duke University, it looked like whoever called the shots was taking a well-informed chance. Of course, co-headlining the event was Better Than Ezra; when one campus council representative explained that the two came as "a great combo deal," the choice of Wilco seemed less like good taste than good fortune: the giant-heaps-of-money kind of fortune arbitrarily thrown at the critically proclaimed Next Great Band.
A common student response to Wilco seemed to be: "Are they better than Better than Ezra?" If only those students were being clever. Nonetheless, the '90s alt-rock somebodies in Better Than Ezra drew a cheery crowd during their set, receiving recognition for their two best-known songs as if they'd been played on the radio just last week.
After Better Than Ezra left the stage, however, the sea change from baseball hats to horn-rims was remarkable. I conducted a rather unscientific survey of the crowd near the stage and concluded that one in every 10 people was actually a student. Most of the Dukies seemed to have meandered to the back or retreated to binge drink in the safety of their dorm rooms, while hundreds of Triangle residents crowded in for the free concert.
Wilco is doing a mini-tour of campus appearances, and they appear to be aware of the small stakes. In the studio, the members of Wilco are intricate, deliberate craftsmen, but here they kicked back on their heels. A conspicuous on-stage laptop seemed to promise grand flailing freak-out endings of which the band is so fond, but no: the peppermint-and-cigarette pop songs mostly petered out in lazily mischievous, dissonant curtsies. This was probably for the best--in this collegiate setting, noisy foxtrotting would elicit more head scratching than chin stroking.
And so Wilco quickly tore through seven straight YHF tracks before reaching out sideways ("California Stars" from Mermaid Avenue, the Woody Guthrie song collaboration with Billy Bragg), backward ("Monday" and "Outta Mind, Outta Sight" off Being There), and forward (the excellent, golden-glazed "Handshake Drugs" off the new e-release, More Like the Moon EP).
It was all pretty, genial and somewhat underwhelming. Wilco's mellower moments bear dark lyrical weight, but in the light and breezy spring night, gentle beauties such as "Red-Eyed and Blue" and "Jesus, Etc." floated away. The fizzling momentum could have benefited from more than just a couple of tracks off the exuberant, punchy Summerteeth.
Wilco is, however, probably still reeling from a recently swapped drummer and recently fired guitarist, as well as the whole Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-hype phenomenon. If you watched closely, you could see a great band, detached but not disinterested, tracing back over its humble roots. But most students who were left on the quad for the concert were beer-basted, sun-baked and paying more attention to each other than to the performers on stage: for the collegians, Wilco seemed only to provide the soundtrack not the main attraction.