Jeff Tweedy - vocals
Jay Bennett - guitar, keyboards, vocals
John Stirrat - bass, vocals
Ken Coomer - drums
Max Johnston - guitar, banjo, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, vocals
Before Jeff Tweedy published poetry, and before experiments like Yankeee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco was still just a Chicago rock & roll band on the brink when they played this show at the Laguna Seca Days festival in 1996. Forming in 1994 out of the shards of Uncle Tupelo, at the time of this show, the band (who then consisted of Jeff Tweedy, Jay Bennett, John Stirratt, Ken Coomer and Max Johnston), had released its 1995 debut album A.M. but had not yet finished its 1996 breakthrough, Being There.
Noting that it was their second show of 1996 (even though it was already nearly six months into the year), frontman Tweedy joked, "We were supposed to practice and didn't." Facts were, Wilco had been playing in the studio, holed up for the winter recording Being There while Tweedy was at home and off the road, adjusting to life as a new father, which he also explained to the crowd.
Opening with the unrushed groove of "Kingpin" and running down about 15 songs, the band immediately slip into their comfortable rock & roll shoes for "I Must Be High," the opening song from A.M. They move into the companion pieces from Being There, "Red-Eyed and Blue," and "I Got You (At the End of the Century)", foreshadowing the songs' order on the record while revealing in fact the two were a pair, long before they were ever released.
"Shouldn't Be Ashamed" dabbles in ramshackle rock, while "Hotel Arizona" from the forthcoming Being There features Jay Bennett on keyboards. "Sunken Treasure" is more downbeat and "(Was I) In Your Dreams" provides a little time to cool down, though they fire things up again for "Someday Soon." There are times when the band rambles, trucks and rocks much like the good old Grateful Dead did in its folk-rock heyday, and like the Dead, you can sense that the players are having fun. By time they get to their anthemic road tune "Monday," "about a bad trip to Florida" says Tweedy, and the riff-rockin' "Outtasite (Outta Mind)," they sound to be having a grand old time, and yet the audience is politely subdued.
"I feel like I'm playing at Pebble Beach," says Tweedy, noting the "smattering" of applause," following "The Lonely 1." "Nice putt, Jeff," he says. And still, not much reaction from the crowd.
"Passenger Side" one of their wild "odes to the road" fails to ignite the crowd. They follow with "Casino Queen," another from that early period, when they were transitioning from the more country-orientated styles of Uncle Tupelo to the more rockin' Wilco (though "We've Been Had," originally recorded for Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne album, is one that survived the band's make-over). Closing out the show, they leave with the fever and fervor of "Dreamer In My Dreams."
Wilco was still very much a straight-up Americana band--all wailing guitar leads, riffs and tight harmonies--trying to find its way at this point, but anyone in love with 'Wilco-now' would surely be interested in checking this slice of 'Wilco-then': soon enough they'd turn down the twang and turn up the more expansive and experimental stuff. Things would get a lot more complicated for Wilco as the years wore on; the projects became more intense and ambitious, the members would fail to see eye to eye, and ultimately they moved apart. And yet on this night, they're young, they're wild and they're loose, like a group of friends enjoying the laidback and lazy atmosphere on the cusp of summer during the Laguna Seca Days.