If only all concert films could be as good as this.
Released this past weekend to coincide with National Record Store Day, it's clear from the get-go that Wilco's Ashes Of American Flags is much more than your run of the mill, live concert DVD.
More than that, it's a documentary film that gives the viewer an up-close, road-mapped view of Wilco on the road, in addition to all the great performances (although rest assured, there are plenty of those here too). Here we see Wilco on the tour bus, at the soundchecks (performing a beautiful "Wishful Thinking"), eating at the roadside dives, and checking out landmarks along the way like Ernest Tubb's Record Shop.
You hear Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy talking about the physical demands of life on the road, but never in a way that suggests they'd have it any other way. This is a film that makes it abundantly clear this is a band that loves what they do. In another sequence, the band members lament the "Walmart-ization" of rural America as the tour bus rolls through small communities that have become more like ghost towns along the highway.
But if these scenes of Wilco on the road provide an intimate snapshot of the band, the concert scenes are still the main event here. Recorded at venues ranging from New Orleans' Tipitanas to Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, it also becomes clear in interviews that each of these places hold special value to the band members.
At the two aforementioned venues, Wilco is also joined by a three-piece horn section called The Total Pros. In New Orleans, they play from an upper balcony as Tweedy introduces them as "the contest winners who were the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth callers."
Ashes Of American Flags is also beautifully shot, making you yearn to see it on a big screen. The HD quality gives you more than just a front row seat during the concert sequences. You literally get a view here from Jeff Tweedy's microphone — and most impressively from guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline's fingertips on the fretboard.
Speaking of which, Cline is a force of nature unto himself throughout, proving once again (as if any further proof were needed) that his addition was that one missing piece of the puzzle that finally completed this already formidable band. Cline's solos on "Side With The Seeds," "Handshake Drugs," and especially the dual axe-shredding with Pat Sansone on "Impossible Germany" are simply stunning.
The film also has some of the best sound I've ever heard on a concert DVD. The chimes on a soundchecked version of "Ashes Of American Flags," for example, ring as clear as a church bell, and the hi-hats and cymbals on songs like "Side With The Seeds" and "Impossible Germany" are both crisp and distinct. You literally hear every single thing here with absolute clarity. As concert films go, this is really about as good as it gets.
It's also very cool to see the way that Wilco interacts with its audience, accepting a "Grammy" from one concertgoer at Washington DC's 9:30 club, and even sticking around afterwords to sign autographs.
Ashes Of American Flags also features some great extras. In addition to the 90 minute concert film, the bonus tracks include "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," "Theologians," and "Hate It Here."
There is also a download which gives you MP3 tracks of the complete performances, the full Washington DC concert, as well as all of the other goodies that come with the free membership you get in the fans-only area of WilcoWorld. On my very first visit there earlier tonight, I learned that Wilco's new album has been completed and mastered. Here is the complete track listing of the as-yet-untitled album in sequence:
Wilco The Song
Bull Black Nova
You And I
You Never Know
I can't wait.