What could Wilco do for its Yankee Hotel Foxtrot shows?

When Wilco sets up for six (update:) eight special Yankee Hotel Foxtrot shows over several April nights in Chicago and New York, sure, it could simply play the album as released in full-band arrangements.

But anyone who would buy a ticket to a YHF-themed show knows that the album’s lasting appeal is not so much about its final running order or front-to-back listening experience. The full YHF legacy is about backstory, the strength of the songs that made the cut, and the strength of some songs that didn’t. It would be cool if these sets reflected some of that.

Make arrangements

Pretty much all of the songs on YHF received decent attention in setlists over the years, especially the first decade or so after the album (finally) came out. This is one reason to not do (only) a plain front-to-back full-band reading: There’s no obvious holy grail for fans (e.g., “The Price You Pay”, which Bruce Springsteen had played just 4 times between 1981 and 2016’s full The River revival).

Choosing some spots to mix up the arrangements could be great. Solo, part-band, full-band acoustic, full-band electric, etc. Wilco is no stranger to recasting for acoustic sets, and Tweedy is a solo acoustic veteran.

History is another reason for getting creative in celebrating these songs. At least a little YHF material had its first airing in 1999-2000 (Ashes Of American Flags, I’m The Man Who Loves You). These shows, late in the Jay Bennett era, represented a unique delta of the band’s Tweedy’s songwriting waters. Summerteeth, the half-Guthrie Mermaid Ave. songs, and yet-unreleased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot material all mingled in the same setlists.

And at least some of YHF (e.g., Poor Places) was first performed live by the brief new-drummer, no-Bennett, stripped down 4-piece (eventually plus Jorgensen offstage) lineup in 2001-2002. Their first live incarnations sounded meaningfully different than they would just a couple of years later.

The point being, YHF songs straddled two major personnel and sonic eras in the band’s history. April’s upcoming nostalgic nod could add some fresh appeal in the form of varied arrangements, reflecting the fluid environment(s) into which they were born.

Shake that sugar

Whether or not they play Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in order as a set piece, setlist room remains for other material from the sessions.

Two sets of demos circulated extensively. The Alpha Mike Foxtrot box gave official releases to fan favorites Cars Can’t Escape — which had a lovely (definitive?) piano/vocal demo and a full-band AMF release — and A Magazine Called Sunset, which has made it into the occasional setlist already.

Another loud YHF demo of Not For The Season eventually traded its full-electric bluster for a quieter, more sinewy arrangement. Renamed Laminated Cat, that arrangement found a release as a Loose Fur track and eventually achieved a toehold in Wilco’s setlists.

The first candidate would be the hooky Alone (Shakin’ Sugar). Never played by Wilco, it’s been performed only five times. Those were all Jeff Tweedy solo shows, and the last one was over 20 years ago.

So as with the album tracks themselves, even key outtakes have already gotten some love onstage. However, Tweedy does have a couple of options for making these setlists extra special.

The first one would be Wilco’s live debut of the hooky Alone (Shakin’ Sugar). If Wilcobase is accurate (and I suspect it is, at least up until 2012), this has been played live only five times. All of those were Jeff Tweedy solo shows, and the last one was over 20 years ago.

(I liked it enough to take my own crack at it for fun [below] when I was exploring GarageBand on the iPad and home recording setups.)

The other one is the gorgeous Venus Stop The Train. However, Venus is listed as a straight-up Jay Bennett composition on his subsequent album with Edward Burch, The Palace 4 a.m. (Part 1). Its odds for these shows may be longer. OTOH, wouldn’t this be as good an excuse as he and we are ever going to get?

One fan’s wishlist:

  • Pick some songs and give them different arrangements across these shows.
  • Apply a generous spirit toward the couple of gems nobody has heard Wilco play yet.
  • Make the two-city mini-tour a celebration of not just the quality but the versatility of these songs (maybe not in official YHF running order) and the experimental spirit in which they developed, and that we’re all still here and enjoying them in 2022.
  • Put up the shows for download, take my money.

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