Wilco: Ashes of American Flags


There’s a moment in the song “Ashes of American Flags” where Jeff Tweedy sings, “All my lies are always wishes/ I know I would die if I could come back new.” And “come back new” is exactly what Wilco has done the last few years. After many line-up changes, there is finally a sense of comfortable continuity within the band, and on their new concert DVD, which is also titled Ashes of American Flags, they’ve never sounded better as a unit.
Of course, you know this if you saw them live in 2008. There’s a certain point in every Wilco show where everything seems perfect—Tweedy is in fine vocals, bassist John Stirratt is in a groove, master guitarist Nels Cline is working his hard-to-describe magic, drummer Glenn Kotche is going absolutely nuts behind his kit, Pat “the natural” Sansone is doing a windmill, and multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen is adding his magic touch. You think you’re witnessing America’s best band, and really, you probably are.

And that’s why Ashes is an important must-add to your music collection—it’s got the ability to bring you back to those moments you’ve seen countless times; moments you want to revisit more than once and embrace with everlasting life.

While Tweedy gets a lot of the credit for writing and singing most of Wilco’s songs, Ashes is really more about the entire band rather than only the lead singer wearing the nudie suit. Of course, Tweedy is front and center during a lot of the film’s live action, but we’re also often given elaborate examples of what makes a live Wilco experience special—the convulsing Cline on guitar (seriously, he shakes; you’ll note the whiplash), the stoic Stirratt, the maniac that is Kotche, the smiling and goofy Sansone, and the quirky Jorgensen. And all this happening in small-town America or legendary venues like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium or Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club. There are panoramic shots, odd angles, and arty audience looks. More and more as you watch it, it feels like home.

Early on in the DVD, a performance of “Handshake Drugs” at Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom stands out as a perfect moment, and there are many others you’re handed throughout—like sound checks (“Wishful Thinking”), the lengthy jam on “Impossible Germany,” and impromptu dressing room jam sessions. The behind-the-scenes footage from the road seems to give off a “be careful what you wish for vibe” from the band, only because we’re taken through a country that, from the clips we’re shown, is showing a lot of wear-and-tear.

And at times, the band seems injured, as well. We find Tweedy having his throat and nose inspected after a gig, and Cline and Kotche needing to be iced down after lengthy performances. “I never want to think about my body when I’m playing, I just want to levitate,” Cline tells us while lying down.

In the end though, Wilco shines brighter than the decay and assault that meets them while on tour.  While Sansone admits that “so many American downtowns kind of feel a bit bombed out,” and Stirratt laments on the “Walmartinization” of certain towns, they genuinely seem happy to still be around.

Wilco didn’t have to die to “come back new,” but that’s ok; their flags were never made to be ashes. Like the thunder that explodes during the middle of “Via Chicago,” their sound is permanently decorated and saluted in cities that have turned to rust, always bloodier than blood.

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