Wilco and Joanna Newsom
Better than...waiting for the Sepulveda Pass to re-open.
Wilco's name has graced more marquees in Los Angeles this year than a majority of bands that actually live here. Last night, under a full moon and amid looming Santa Ana winds, Wilco wrapped up a lengthy promotional tour by rocking their largest audience yet, mesmerizing an enthusiastic crowd of inebriated grey hairs at the Hollywood Bowl with an assist from Joanna Newsom.
Songwriter, vocalist and harpist Newsom opened the show backed by drummer Neal Morgan and string man Ryan Francesconi. Newsom spent all but one song pinned beneath her harp, strumming strange odes driven by a cleverly-obscure vocabulary that would make Elvis Costello smile.
The crowd was respectfully attentive to Newsom's demure set. Morgan, dressed in jeans and a tie, played more than a strict time-keeping role while Francesconi delicately found his way in and out of the tunes. Through it all Newsom led the parade.
Her high singing voice has lowered since her debut album eight years ago and that's a good thing. She has now settled into a range of a zither-toting Joni Mitchell, which is admittedly higher than most people would find appealing. She still leaps into springy heights but uses that preciousness sparingly. She is a captivating performer who seemed to win some converts.
The greatest thing to happen to Wilco in the last ten years is the addition of Nels Cline's whammy bar. The lanky guitarist, who used to regularly shred before handfuls of people in strange corners of Los Angeles, has been a member of the band since 2004 and adds an immeasurable arty muscle to the group's sound.
Wilco's set kicked off with some of Cline's patented feedback, his double-necked guitar pointed skyward before the full ensemble launched into "Dawned on Me." From there the group spent over two hours driving through their back catalogue and showcasing Cline's infectious energy whether he was laying down heavy fuzz, countrified riffs or a Brian May-indebted guitar solo.
Six songs into the set the band spiraled into Cline's feature tune, "Impossible Germany." With multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone joining bandleader Jeff Tweedy in a dual guitar front, Cline went to work, writhing and ripping over the Allman Brothers-like riff. The solo, which lasted nearly five mintues, was an impressive balance of script and spontaneity. Left to his own devices Cline could have ruled the stage for the entire night.
The burly Tweedy was playfully homey with the crowd, saving most of his energy for his songs. "He walks amongst you!" he announced following Cline's master class while later remarking "I think something crawled up my nose during that song."
Wilco is one of the tightest rock groups traversing the planet and their professionalism has been honed by countless dates. Mid-'90s chestnuts like "Box Full of Letters" thumped across the amphitheater while the blip-rock of "Art of Almost" challenged the epileptics in the crowd with a blinding light display. Their 2002 release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a pillar of the set including a bass-heavy "War on War" and an sing-along to "Jesus, Etc."
"We're a very lucky band," Tweedy announced towards the end. True. He may have taken our beloved Nels but he has brought him to a far larger audience. Trading in the Smell for the Hollywood Bowl without giving up your soul is an impressive feat, and at least he returns every few months.
Personal Bias: My wife has a strong crush on Nels Cline but I've made peace with that.
The Crowd: People who were concerned about leaving their tweens home alone for a few hours.
Random Notebook Dump: Was there any place in Los Angeles with more middle aged bro-dancers last night? I saw many moves I hope to never see again.
Set List - Joanna Newsom:
Bridges & Balloons
Have One on Me
Set List - Wilco:
Dawned on Me
War on War
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
The Whole Love
Hate it Here
Box Full of Letters
I'm Always in Love
A Shot in the Arm
Ashes of American Flags
Heavy Metal Drummer
I'm the Man Who Loves You
Outtasite (Outta Mind)