A couple of years ago, it was easy to say that Wilco's career trajectory perfectly described what is wrong with the music industry in the United States. These days, that continuing story gives many music fans hope.
This hope comes not just from the glowing reviews or the chart-topping debuts. It's not only that their critically acclaimed albums have moved them from alt-country darlings to leftist political heroes to rock 'n' roll classicists. It comes from the band's bold determination, which has established it as an oasis of integrity and intelligence in the wearisome world of corporate record making.
The band's acclaimed 2002 release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, made it on to nearly every critic's favorite list, but it almost wasn't released at all.
In the five years before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco released five solid alt-country records. Led by former Uncle Tupelo frontman Jeff Tweedy, the band pushed to the forefront of the alt-country genre with the albums A.M. (1995), Being There (1996), and Summerteeth (1998). Two albums were nominated for Grammys -- Mermaid Avenue, volumes 1 and 2 -- which feature British iconoclast punk-folker Billy Bragg singing the unrecorded songs of folk legend Woody Guthrie.
But it wasn't until stodgy corporate record execs at Reprise Records (a division of AOL Time Warner) refused to release their next album that Wilco truly became a household name. They felt the record that took the band in a decidedly more pop direction was a "career-ender." Instead, its portentous release date of Sept. 11, 2001, only underscored the subsequent yearlong struggle to release the album.
Unfazed, and in an age when many of pop music's top moneymakers were condemning virtual music distribution, the band released the album over the Internet. Bootlegged and downloaded copies were in the hands of Wilco fans long before another AOL Time Warner division, Nonesuch, finally released the record a year later. But previously owning the songs didn't stop true record fans from buying Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which debuted at the top of the charts.
Wilco redefined themselves as a revolutionary pop band with the near-perfect pop songs "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You," the poignant "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" (which inspired the title of a documentary about the band's quest to release the album), and the skewering political anthems "Ashes of American Flags" and "War on War."
Wilco's much-anticipated 2004 release, A Ghost Is Born, is a bit more ponderous, with longer songs, more feedback and a few too many guitar solos. Nevertheless, Wilco's popularity continues to grow, and the band's upcoming Denver performance follows three sold-out performances in Chicago. Wilco has never been shy about its political leanings (Their Web site includes links to MoveOn.org and Doctors Without Borders), but they're also not afraid to appeal to the hip young parents in their audience base; they recently recorded a song for the soon-to-be-released The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie.
-- Bettina Swigger
Wilco with Augie March
Saturday, Nov. 6, 8 p.m.
The Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson St., Denver
$25; 303/837.1482 or www.cc.com