Sushi Bar or Dennys?

Not pestering Jeff Tweedy last November when we bumped into him a few blocks from the Fillmore Ballroom in San Francisco wasn't the best use of our good manners. As a result, this story about Wilco doesn't feature even one fresh comment from the cat-faced guy who masterminds the best band in America.

Yes, we suck—albeit with a disarming complaisance.

And, yes, we did just call Wilco the best band in America.

That's why we flew from Orange County to San Francisco last fall for the first of Wilco's three nights at the Fillmore. And that's how we happened to be wandering around the adjacent neighborhoods the day before the show.

Tweedy was taking a smoke break outside the restaurant where he was eating—either a sushi bar or a Denny's, we couldn't tell which because the places were next to each other. My buddy recognized him as we walked past and got all bug-eyed as he quietly ventriloquisted, “Dude, that's Jeff Tweedy!” He had to say it again, this time a little louder and moving his lips, before I understood.

I rather automatically said hello to Tweedy and stuck out my hand. While he shook it, I told him how far we'd traveled to see his band. Tweedy asked, “Really?” Then he said, “All right.” And then, “Well, thanks a lot.” He took a long drag off his diminishing cigarette, blew out the smoke and smiled at us. “Yeah,” he said, nodding kind of reflectively. “That's cool.”

Meanwhile, I thought to myself: Man, I've never seen a guy whose face looks so much like a cat.

There were any number of questions we could have asked Tweedy—should have asked him, as it turns out—but a couple of other people were standing there, too, and we began to worry we might be invading the poor guy's personal space. That would not be cool. We began to suspect we were coming across like so many other geeky devotees—like, perhaps, those other two people standing there. They didn't look especially cool, although it's possible they were Tweedy's close personal friends and that we were interrupting—making us even more uncool.

So we moved on, silently resuming our search for an ATM and cheap gifts for my ex-fiance's kids, until my friend asked me, “Do you think he was eating at the sushi bar or at the Denny's?”

Wilco's fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is not their finest, which, in a weird way, is why the collection cements the band's status as America's best. The songs are simpler and more repetitive. The tracks are longer. The trappings are denser. It's not as much fun.

Neither, apparently, is the band. Tweedy dismissed drummer Ken Coomer and keyboardist/guitarist Jay Bennett for unspecified crimes of musical incompatibility—even though both men were crucial to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which Tweedy loves so much he left Reprise Records rather than capitulate to the label's demands that the songs be rerecorded in a more accessible style.

Tweedy paid a reported $50,000 to buy the album's masters and shopped around for a company that would release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as is. Meanwhile, the entire collection was posted on the Wilco website.

That was the situation when we ran into Tweedy outside the sushi bar or the Denny's. That's why the audience at the Fillmore the next night could sing along with Wilco's new material. “How many of you have heard the new album?” Tweedy asked between songs. When a cornfield of arms shot up, Tweedy laughed. “Great,” he said, “and that's with sales, so far, of exactly zero.”

Tweedy can make the same joke at the House of Blues on Wednesday. Wilco has since signed with Nonesuch Records, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot won't be released until April 23—closing in on a year after its original target date. Any more delays, and the edginess that put off the execs at Reprise will have to be marketed as retro by Nonesuch.

But in spite of all the grand artistic stands and personal squabbles, Wilco does not arrive in Anaheim as the latest incarnation of pop music's self-indulgence, ruthlessness and obstinacy. Well, that's not all it represents, anyway. The band's confidence, sense of adventure and swelling virtuosity have coalesced into a series of unique reincarnations that simultaneously draw from and propel American music.

Such powerful unpredictability used to be what rock was about before people who bought records were called consumers. It's not as prevalent anymore, which is why there is something exciting and encouraging about what Wilco is doing—why it's possible to love its new music, even if your immediate reaction is to not like it as much as the old stuff.

Who would have thought that in four CDs, this splinter group of the late, wonderful Uncle Tupelo would have transformed from alt.-country roots revivalists (A.M.) to double-album, arena-rock romanticists (Being There) to happy-hooked-pop Brian Wilsonists (Summerteeth) to laptop-Mac digital disaffectedness . . . ists (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)?

Who would have thought that Wilco, formed from flannel and thrash chords in the aftermath of grunge, would be opening shows with Tweedy typing computer codes?

You don't have to answer that.

“If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have said you were nuts,” says John Stirratt, who has been playing bass for Wilco since the beginning. “Now I guess I would say that you're a little less nuts.”

Stirratt is on the phone with us from his hotel room in Nashville. He's handling the interviews for Wilco's current tour because Tweedy is overseas talking to the European press. That will teach us to be more forcefully conversational the next time we bump into him in front of a sushi bar or a Denny's.

“After what's gone on in the past few years, I'm more inclined to consider everything a possibility,” says Stirratt. Consequently, he downplays the commotion that has surrounded Wilco since it set out to record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in late 1999. “We had been free of trouble for so long,” he says, “that I think we were just overdue, as far as tumult goes.”

In concert, Wilco is better than ever. The band's performances in San Francisco and at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles were tight and powerful, challenging and rollicking.

“People keep mentioning our new 'inaccessibility,' but I really don't understand that,” says Stirratt. “I think we have better songs than ever—and play them better. I'll admit we probably couldn't write a hit if we wanted to, but that's not bad in a climate where people want something different—and when you see Radiohead drawing 60,000 people without playing big-rousing-chorus rock, it's a good sign. But I'd just prefer to be taken for who we are, instead of reading implications into everything.”

Still, some questions beg for an answer—while they seem to remain unanswerable. Such as: sushi bar or Denny's?

“Hmmm, that's a good one,” Stirratt says. “Because I know Jeff is a big sushi fan—but he sure doesn't mind a Grand Slam breakfast.”

Wilco perform at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Wed., 8 p.m. $20. All ages, but anyone 16 and under must be accompanied by an adult 18 or over.

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