“Cheer Up, Honey, I Hope You Can” : Yankee Hotel Foxtrot At 20

We arrived in Chicago just in time for the Palestinian protests and roving motorcycle gangs speeding through traffic on Michigan Avenue on Motorcross-style dirt bikes. Chicago cops in the median standing next to their mountain bikes flummoxed and indignant. The entrance to our underground parking a mere 50 feet away, though it might as well have been in Skokie.

Welcome to the Windy City.

My wife and I found ourselves in Chicago on a rare occasion. Not for all the political and social chaos happening on Michigan Avenue as people walked their dogs and stepped off private buses in tuxes and $1,000 dresses at the Hilton, but to go to a concert. We were seeing Wilco at the Auditorium Theatre on the anniversary of the release of their monumental and career-changing album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. April 23rd, 2002 saw an album filled with as much drama as a CW “must-see” week night line-up drop and turn my favorite band from the Midwest’s best kept secret to the “American Radiohead”, whatever that meant.

Ask me four different times in one week, hell in just one day, what Wilco record had the biggest influence on me and I’ll give you four different answers. Being There because it was the first album I heard of Wilco’s in late 1996. The chaos and comfort that lived in those songs pushed me to evangelize to anyone who’d listen about the greatness of Wilco. Then it’d be Summerteeth because it felt like the saddest, most poet-driven jangly pop album ever made. Especially given my first listen was in a lousy Fresno, CA Ramada Inn hotel room alone and homesick. The quiet, gauzy sparseness of A Ghost Is Born felt revelatory to me given the crater in the earth that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot left in its wake. It opened to the sound of “At Least That’s What You Said”, which felt like Neil Young and Crazy Horse in an existential vacuum on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

But then there’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Out of all of Wilco’s releases, this was the one we almost never got. Not only did it hang in the balance between true artistic expression and guys in suits that just “didn’t get it”, it was nearly the undoing of the Midwest’s best kept secret. Coming from my standpoint in 2001, it felt personally like the most anticipated release of my lifetime. Reading bits and pieces in Spin and Rollingstone about the making of the record(a record that was supposed to be called Here Comes Everyone at first), then this gulf of no information at all, to then Wilco dropping the LP on their website for the world to hear before there was even an official release(or the concept of streaming, actually.)

I recall sitting in my basement trying to “stream” their new album on an ancient Compaq Presario with a terrible dial-up connection and never getting past the fuzzy electronic noise opener of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”. Maybe it was impatience or maybe it was our county’s horrible dial-up infrastructure, but I didn’t want to listen to my favorite band’s new album for the first time on terrible Radio Shack computer speakers. I decided to just hold out until I could put the official CD in my stereo and experience it as Wilco and Jim O’Rourke intended.

Eventually it was announced that Wilco signed to Nonesuch Records and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would be released on April 23, 2002. Excitement built, I preordered the CD direct from WilcoWorld.net, and so began the wait. A sparse, rough n tumble 4-pc Wilco which included Tweedy, John Stirratt, Leroy Bach, and Glenn Kotche announced a tour to support the album and my wife and I bought tickets to see them at the Promowest Pavillion in Columbus, OH April 19th, 2002.

This was my first experience with these tracks and I was in awe. I heard the “They just aren’t as good as they were with A.M” bullshit from a couple guys still stuck in 1995 and with rust belt size adoration for Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt and just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’m hearing fucking art coming from that stage, man. Wilco had deconstructed and rebuilt rock and roll on that album and I was seeing it live right there. It was truly a mind-blowing and, dare I say, spiritual experience. Spiritual in the same sense of losing oneself in nature, where you find yourself maybe feeling closer to a purity of expression and understanding that you hadn’t felt before.

But yeah, A.M. was so much better than this.

The band was raw and serious. This was not Jeff the affable, self-deprecating and open band leader he is today. This was a guy stepping into the unknown. He was a songwriter with something to prove and new songs to share with a crowd that, to some degree, was still judging him from an album(and a past band) he’d like to move on from. Tweedy came out in a beat up jean jacket and led the charge through the bulk of YHF, as well as some of Summerteeth and Being There. If the band was on shaky ground you couldn’t tell. They burned through new song after new song, and by the end I couldn’t wait for April 23(interesting fact: on the drive home the next day we heard on the radio that Layne Staley had been found dead in his apartmet in Seattle.) I’d been prepped for a record that was going to change me and what I wanted in an album. What an album could do to me and my own approach to making art.

Jump 20 years to last night in Chicago.

My wife and I survived the protest and biker gangs to enjoy happy hour at a nearby bistro. Two old-fashioneds later and we made our way to the Auditorium Theatre. Wilco was performing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in its entirety in celebration of the album’s 20 year anniversary. The fact that it was 20 years to the day it came out, as well as nearly 20 years since we’d seen that raw nerve performance in Columbus of those songs that were now a part of me, made this concert a revelatory moment for me and my wife.

The band was phenomenal. The album was presented as if you were listening at home on vinyl, played all the way through with no interruptions. It was magical; transcendent. From the strumming of “I’m The Man Who Loves You” at the end of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” to the extended outro of “Pot Kettle Black” to the droning noise and piano end of “Reservations”, Wilco gave us the record we’ve all ingrained in our minds. Not new, interesting interpretations to spice it up. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was performed like a transmission from space that’s just now reaching us 20 years later.

I was moved. I felt that show in my bones. So much has happened in the last 20 years, that this Wilco album has soundtracked both good and bad in our lives. Births, deaths, car rides in the summer when the kids were still in booster seats; to mixes listened to while going to college visits. These songs echo in my head and heart on a daily basis, even when I don’t think they are. Walking by the bathroom as my 18-year old is in the shower with her phone blasting “Pot Kettle Black” right after a Joji track is a firm reminder of just how far this record reaches in our house.

And also seeing Jeff Tweedy up there fronting a band of musical wizards; conducting them like the song maestro that he is. It was beautiful to see Tweedy owning his massive contribution to rock and roll and art in general. Taking a chance like he did, tearing the great songs that were already there down(along with letting Jim O’Rourke be the mad scientist that he is and guide) and rebuilding them into something more personal and singular. From the raw 4 pc band I saw in 2002 to the mini-Wilco Orchestra it has become, Tweedy has transcended the image of the tortured artist. He’s denounced it, de-mystified it, and burnt it to the ground. Up on the that stage last night was a humble, down-to-earth artist that savors every moment he has and it comes through with every strum, every note, and every joyfully awkward dance move.

This night and the Wilco journey was not just mine, but both my wife and I’s. We’ve seen Wilco 11 times(she’s seen them 12, but who’s counting?) First opening for REM in ’99, and the last time was in 2010 at a baseball stadium in South Bend, IN. This show felt full-circle to me. If we’d never see Wilco(or any band) live again I’d be content in the thought that we saw probably the five best concerts of our lives with Wilco. Two of those shows were April 19, 2002, and April 23, 2022.

So what is my favorite Wilco album? Of course it’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Well… wait. Ask me in an hour.

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