Wilco’s live DVD, Ashes of American Flags, captures all that’s great (and not-so-great) about one of America’s most celebrated bands. Compiling a handful of performances from last year’s tour of concert halls and clubs, Ashes of American Flags illustrates the band’s eclectic mix of pop, rock, country, folk and indie rock, and the DVD covers the breadth of Wilco’s career. But while the concert footage and behind-the-scenes interviews will be beloved by the Wilco faithful, Ashes occasionally demonstrates the unevenness of the group’s catalog.
A Band in Fine Form
Though touring to support 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (led by principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy) dip into many of their albums for Ashes of American Flags. In this way, the DVD offers an ideal overview of the band’s oeuvre while spotlighting their current lineup. Wilco have been notorious for their personnel changes – only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain from the group that released their 1995 debut, A.M. – but the six-piece unit that exists now is arguably the strongest Tweedy has had. This sextet powers through the songs featured on Ashes of American Flags, and whether it’s the balladry of “It’s Just That Simple” (included in the DVD extras) or the rollicking dive-bar rock of “Monday,” the band rip through them with assurance. Deserving special honors, new Wilco guitarist Nels Cline proves himself to be a genius at both gently lyrical solos and furious feedback.
From a technical standpoint, Ashes of American Flags impresses. Directors Brendan Canty and Christoph Green get superb onstage coverage of the performances and don’t resort to a lot of quick cutting to give the songs an artificial sense of energy. Instead, the DVD offers extended shots of each band member so that the live material feels measured rather than frenetic. (Even better, there are almost no shots of concertgoers – after all, who buys a live DVD to watch the crowd enjoying itself? We want to see the band.) As a way to create interludes between the different performances, Canty and Green have put together some truly lovely images shot from tour buses paired with brief interviews. Admittedly, the interviews themselves aren’t particularly rewarding or insightful, a common complaint with these sorts of fan keepsakes, but at least the filmmakers don’t linger too long on these extraneous moments.
A Song for Every Taste
Like with all live CDs or DVDs, the success of Ashes of American Flags hinges on the songs, and by and large Wilco have selected a strong group of performances. Because they’re not a group with blockbuster hits, Wilco are a little freer to decide what to include on a collection like this, and so it’s interesting to see what made the cut. With that said, it appears that the band wanted a little something from every style and genre they’ve pursued. There’s the stripped-down chamber pop of “Ashes of American Flags,” the experimental edge of “Via Chicago,” the catchy rock of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and the elegant jam-rock of the guitar-driven “Impossible Germany” – those who love Wilco for their musical-chameleon ambition will be very happy. But for those of us who prefer particular Wilco albums or guises, Ashes can feel like a mixed bag.
Familiar Songs Get Unfamiliar Live Treatment
Jeff Tweedy received almost universal acclaim for the sonic tinkering that he layered into the songs on 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its 2004 follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, but the aural fussiness occasionally distracted from the melodies, creating albums that were too artsy for their own good. That pretentiousness has been with Tweedy since practically the beginning of Wilco’s career, and it rears its head on Ashes of American Flags as well when the band reduce “Kingpin” and “Via Chicago” to self-conscious exercises in tinkering. This is not to say that Wilco shouldn’t be allowed to reimagine their own material – and the gorgeous live versions of “Handshake Drugs” and “Side With the Seeds” argue that they’re quite capable of doing just that – but Tweedy’s itchiness to meddle with his arrangements can load the songs down unnecessarily.
Release date – April 28, 2009
Wilco's 'Ashes of American Flags' - Bottom LineFor better or worse, Ashes of American Flags is a very accurate snapshot of Wilco at this stage of their career. Expertly played and passionately executed, the songs on this DVD reveal a band fully confident with whatever style they wish to pursue, and a lot of it is quite stirring. But for anyone who respects Wilco more than flat-out loves them, Ashes of American Flags reveals the group’s still-lingering flaws without necessarily convincing you that they’ll ever outgrow them.
Release date – April 28, 2009