“Tonight we’ve got a little something for everyone,” declared Jeff Tweedy midway through Wilco’s sold out Saturday night show at the Uptown Theater. “Merry Christmas!”
He wasn’t kidding.
Wilco’s set list was probably the most unpredictable in all the dozen or so times I’ve seen this band over the years. No Jesus, Etc., no I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and no Handshake Drugs.
Instead, the band hopped around their discography, with an emphasis, of course,on their newest effort, The Whole Love.
Pretty much everyone agrees that Wilco’s most recent three albums are not as good as the two that came before – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born.
Let’s be honest here, those two albums are classics that will stand the test of time, so equaling them in subsequent releases was unrealistic at best. The Whole Love probably comes the closest to those glory years, but it still has drawn plenty of criticism from fans that expect a groundbreaking effort with each new record
Nevertheless, on Saturday night some of the biggest ovations were for the newer tunes.
Before Wilco emerged, though, legendary songwriter Nick Lowe brought his British charm to the stage to “warm up the room.” “But it seems as though this room is already plenty warm,” he quipped between solo acoustic renditions of some of his most popular songs. After his 40 minute set, the only question I was left with was, “No Cruel To Be Kind?”
More on that later.
Wilco took the stage- which was dressed in white bunches of ghost-like sheets hanging all over- and reached back to A Ghost is Born for the tune, Less Than You Think, a quiet, brooding, noise inflected song that builds into a catchy melody before fading into the static fuzz netherworld. They don’t play this song all that often, let alone to open up a show, so right off the bat I was a little surprised by the selection.
As the fuzz dissipated, the syncopated electronic beat of The Art of Almost– one of Wiclo’s new ones – took over. As is almost always the case, sonically, the band was impeccable and Tweedy’s expressive voice was strong and clear. Likewise, Nels Cline commanded his army of guitars to create buzzing accents when he wasn’t busy flying around the frets or shaking the feedback out of his instruments.
Most impressive was his work on the ballad that turns into an all out guitar anthem, Impossible Germany. Though Cline always busts out a ripping solo over Tweedy’s repetitive dual guitar line on the song’s outro, this time he attacked it a little differently, improvising his way into a jazz fury that lent the song a different feel from versions I’ve witnessed in the past.
When the song ended, Tweedy shook his head and glanced incredulously at Cline, who was busy fiddling with his arsenal already getting ready for the next one. “That was fun,” Tweedy stated flatly.
The audience agreed and paid an extra long ovation to the guitar mad scientist.
Rhythm section stalwarts Glenn Kotche and John Stirratt were as they always are – solid, energetic, and impressive – but in a weird way. I say weird because, though their respective parts are certainly complex in some cases, they are so subtle that it’s easy to overlook. But their understated presence is vital to the production of Wilco’s sound and continued status as a roots-rock band, especially since Tweedy commands so much attention.
Four songs in, another surprise came in the form of one of the band’s most loved songs, Misunderstood. Normally reserved for the end of sets or encores, Wilco rolled through the nostalgic tune with an energy that some long-time fans haven’t seen in awhile. One Wilco fan that I know has seen at least a handful of their shows over the years, said after the show that this was the band’s best performance he’d ever seen.
For me, I don’t think it was the best, but it was right up there. But who knows, maybe I’ve idealized the older shows as they get farther and farther away.
Next, the band went in for another new one, the introspective Black Moon which featured a nice droopy lap steel instrumental from Cline. Then the band immediately returned to another favorite, Via Chicago, which might have been the best perfromance of the night.
“I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt all right to me…” sneered Tweedy over the thick acoustic strums.
The all-over-the-map trend continued with nice versions of You and I, Kamera, Box Full of Letters, and Born Alone which received as big of a crowd reaction as there was all night for a new tune.
And it didn’t stop there. Wilco seemed to be playing for themselves, not pandering whatsoever. Well, OK, there was a little pandering before they played Capitol City, a silly-sounding new song that everyone seems to hate. That was excused by a friend with the explanation, “Every band deserves to have their Octopuses Garden.”
“You can tell if an audience is hip,” Tweedy said sheepishly, “by if it is digging this song. Bring it Kansas City!”
To be fair, the song was a bit better than it is on the album, but that’s about it.
As the set came to its end, Tweedy displayed his trademark jogging-in-place dance that always rears its ugly head during the instrumental section of Hummingbird, then they closed with the always rockin’, Shot in the Arm.
The band returned to the stage for not one, but two encores. The latter saw opener Nick Lowe emerge again and together, the musicians ended the night playing Lowe’s hit, Cruel To Be Kind, complete with the backing vocals provided by Tweedy and sideman Pat Sansone.
If there were any kinks to be found on this night, they certainly weren’t on the stage. They had more to do with a ticketing issue that apparently left many concertgoers steamed. Not only were some of the issued Ticketmaster tickets simply not scanning, there was also a mix-up with some of the pre-sale tickets bought through Wilco’s fan club. The result was that some who bought the more expensive tickets got shafted, and I’m guessing that some people never even got in to the show.
“We’re really sorry that happened,” announced Tweedy mid-set. Not that he had any part in the deal, or could have done anything about it.
“So if you could please move to the back,” joked Tweedy pointing at a front row fan, “and let the others move to the front, please.”
Tweedy was just having fun up there, showing that when the band has fun, the audience usually does too.
Less Than You Think
Art of Almost
You and I
Box Full of Letters
War on War
Dawned On Me
A Shot in the Arm
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
Cruel to Be Kind (w/ Nick Lowe)