By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
In the spring of 2005, I took a prayer-inducing dual-prop airplane ride into the California desert — Palm Springs, to be exact. The sun was brutal; the wind churning between the San Bernardino, San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges was neck-snapping. But the music, coming from an 80-acre polo field in nearby Indio, the looming site of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, was more than worth the flight and the weather.
Back then, Coachella was a two-day festival (it has since gone to three and painfully corporate). In between hanging with — okay, around — Cameron Diaz in the VIP area, I caught killer shows: Coldplay, Keane, Nic Armstrong and the Thieves, and a career-launching set by Sri Lankan hip-hopper M.I.A. But the most memorable gig was put on by Wilco, the progenitive alt-country crew led by downright eccentric Midwesterner Jeff Tweedy, formerly of Uncle Tupelo.
Wilco played Coachella's main stage in the late afternoon, and as their jangly, expansive 10-song set wore on — from The Late Greats to Spiders (Kidsmoke) — the sun dropped straight into your eyes, down and down until you had to squint like mad.
Wilco, indulging in an increasingly obtuse psych-rock odyssey — drums and piano and string plucks often acting on their own accord — became just a blur. Tweedy's voice, a yearning, youthful instrument with great heart and a little whine, was disembodied and then some, an urban cowboy with the blues.
It all made poetic sense, of course. From debut disc A.M. (1995) to last year's Wilco (The Album), the critically fawned-over Tweedy & Co. have experimented more and more, a polarizing growth spurt that has chased away some — but has drawn diehards even closer.
I'll be honest: I've had a love-hate thing with Wilco since Day One, but it was pure love during that Coachella sunset. And although I enjoy tweaking Wilco fans — so serious those folks, but so smart, too — I admit I'm really looking forward to Tuesday's show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Tweedy, now 42, is an odd, inspiring artist. Plus, at the very least, I won't have to wear eight layers of sunscreen.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.