What Should Wilco Play on Conan?

Wilco, the second most important current rock band (admit it, Logan, I win!), will be the musical guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien tonight. I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me that the Conan’s viewership is similar demographically to Wilco’s fan base. My guess is that there are a lot of Conan viewers to whom Wilco might appeal and who might have heard of them but aren’t familiar with them. So, while this isn’t as high-profile a gig as an appearance on The O.C. or The Garden State soundtrack or something like that (can you imagine Wilco on The O.C.? That would be awesome!), it’s a good opportunity for a band to make an impression and pique some interest. So what should they play?

There are two sides to Wilco: 1) harmless band firmly rooted in the rock/pop tradition, and 2) envelope-pushing weird experimenters. The question a band like this has to ask themselves is which side should they present to a new audience? Do they play something traditional like “Theologians” or “The Late Greats” and come off as Wilco #1 or do they play something more novel like “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (which would have to be shortened, which probably wouldn’t work) or their crazy noisy version of “Kicking Television” and come off as Wilco #2? Or do they do something in between and come off as Wilco #1.5?

I’m hoping for Wilco #1.5. They should play something that audience members will recognize as a pop song but that also shows that they have more to offer than your run-of-the-mill rock band. In other words, they should come off as novel but not too weird. So, assuming they’re sticking with A Ghost is Born material, I suggest that they play either “Muzzle of Bees” with its delicate, easy melody, abrupt volume changes, and big, screaming guitar crescendo at the end or “Handshake Drugs” (would the drugs thing fly on network TV?) with its nice bass hook and improvized dual guitar noodling.

To those unfamiliar with Wilco but interested in indie/alternative rock, what would be most likely to pique your interest? A good, safe pop song, a pop song with some novel elements, or something off the wall? A more general question: should a band playing one song for a new audience play it safe and go for broad appeal or should they do whatever it takes to stick out? I can see pros and cons to both approaches.

The show was taped a few days ago, so I’m sure with a little internet sleuthing I could find out what they played, but I don’t want to know, so don’t tell me if you know. Yes, I’m a geeky fanboy.

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17 thoughts on “What Should Wilco Play on Conan?

  1. Lets see…

    As a fan, I hope they play something totally new. They’ve been touring on AGIB for a couple of years now, so it’s quite possible they’ll do that (they played “War on War” on late night before YHF came out.)

    Just as a nod to the Conan-in-Chicago theme, they might do “Via Chicago.” Since Barack Obama is on the show, they might to something political, like their cover of “If All Men Are Truly Brothers.”
    On the Wilco fan boards, there’s word out that the song will be a truncated version of “Spiders.” The local hard core fans would go craziest if they did “Passenger Side.” If they’re after broad appeal (which they’re not), they’ll do “Hummingbird.”

    Personally, I’d like to hear something I haven’t heard live from this crew, like “Casino Queen” or “Box Full of Letters.” In my wildest fantasies, they play “Gun.”

  2. I’m a much bigger fan of Wilco #2. I think the suggestion of “Muzzle of Bees” is a good one.

    Re: Spiders (Kidsmoke). I have an early live version (from 2002, I think) that’s about 4 minutes long and it is really good (and made me appreciate the album version more). I can send it to you, if you like.

  3. Totally. tombo at jhu dot edu if it’s small enough to send by email (I can receive at least 10 MB at once).

  4. Greg, I’d definitely be disappointed with “Hummingbird” or “Passenger Side.” The Kicking Televisoin version of “Via Chicago” would be cool.

    But yeah, the coolest would be a new song.

  5. Cool—I remember when the White Stripes were on Conan. For a whole week! Maybe we should ask Conan who he likes better. . .

  6. Wilco #1. But it was Wilco #1 in a way that Wilco has never been #1. Pretty cool/fun. I do hope they haven’t given up on crazyness. I can’t imagine Nels Cline only being used for comping and solos in bridges of pop songs.

  7. I think I’d have to kick Wilco’s ass if they ever played on the OC.

    But then again, the point is moot as they know better…

  8. I’d be one of those Conan viewers who has heard of Wilco but is not familiar with them. I watched and must say I liked the performance. What song was it that they played?

  9. It was a new, unreleased song called “Is That the Thanks I Get?” I don’t have it. Maybe Greg has a live version or maybe he’ll know how to get the audio from Conan if possible. Greg’s the megafan. I’m just a superfan.

    It was definitely the kind of song that would not turn off people who would be turned off by weirdness. It was a really light dance pop thing. It made me smile and the band looked like they were having a good time.

  10. Crap!! I forgot Thunderdome!!!

    Well, something for mother’s day, maybe. Anyone got Danzig?

  11. Greg comes through!

    The song still makes me smile, but I won’t be happy with an album full of that.

    SuperG: you should do something tender and gentle like “Mother” by the Police. Or you could throw Logan a bone and do “I Wanna Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart.”

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