See also: Our Wilco slideshow
Better than: A swimming pool full of Banana Split Dippin' Dots.
Few contemporary American bands command Wilco's critical and fan adoration. Jeff Tweedy and Co. managed to sell out the Palladium in a flash, and they have two more shows (at two different venues) in the next three days. What inspires this kind of adulation? Top-notch songwriting, musical chops honed from 20-plus years of touring and, of course, a tremendous live show.
Tweedy took the stage in a
cowboy hat, denim shirt and blue jeans (two of the three pieces which make up the classic “Canadian tuxedo”). He was in cut-up mode the entire evening, which made for a pleasant contrast with his often somber lyrics. The group led off with “Art of Almost,” a 7-minute mid-tempo piece with spliced percussion and buzzing electronics. The chilly atmosphere plays like a Kid A for Americans obsessed with spaceships and aliens, rather than for depressed Brits who think machines have made modern life absurd.
Wilco's newer, more abstract material served to make the brash, country- and soul-influenced pop-rock of A.M. and Being There all the more infectious in contrast. Speaking of
A.M. Being There, “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” is a ray of radio sunshine for the young and sugar-rushing. It may be a far cry from what the group is doing now that it has aged and changed personnel several times, but it incapsulates encapsulates the rock 'n' roll sprit of the eternally youthful. It also proves that, before he started his own career, Tweedy was listening to as much Cheap Trick as he was the Minutemen or Hank Williams.
The rest of the group (bassist-for-life John Stirratt, indie guitar god Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, percussionist Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone) shined on “Impossible Germany,” from 2007's sublime Sky Blue Sky. Despite the title, the song hails from the deepest, darkest part of Middle America. It's a reverb-driven meditation that the ensemble stretched out into one of the longest jams of the evening, but it never felt strained.
“Everybody okay?” Tweedy asked the sellout crowd. “Do you guys know what this next song is? It starts, 'Hey! You! What's for lunch?'” He repeated the phrase in rhythm, and Kotche played the opening beat. The group launched into “I Must Be High,” one of the very first Wilco songs. The playfully hooky song was like getting in a time machine headed back to 1995, when alt-country was a real thing.
They cruised along until one little blip. Well, two little blips actually. “Capitol City” (sadly, not the song from The Simpsons) was enjoyable but slight, with a bicycle bell chiming while Tweedy sang about bike messengers. It left little impression. The next track, A Ghost Is Born's “Handshake Drugs,” was the weakest of the evening. The track came off stifled and bass-heavy, never taking off until Cline turned it into a trademark guitar exercise. Things would pick up soon after, however.
Tweedy recounted recently watching Sammy Hagar perform. “He said 'pussy' a lot. I've never said the word pussy onstage before. He said it more like 'PUSS-AYYYY!' Now I said it for the first time. Pussy!” He laughed and added, “I feel like a big weight has been lifted off me.” They launched into new song “Dawned on Me” which is one of the sleekest rockers they've ever released. Nels Cline broke out his double-necked guitar for the occasion, making their '70s rock indebtedness gloriously explicit. “A Shot in the Arm” is a highlight from 1999's Summerteeth, arguably their best record and one very well represented in the concert. It really didn't get any better in turn-of-the-millennium rock music, and it sounded great live.
After a short breather, the boys returned to perform “Via Chicago.” Both creepy and inviting, it begins with the immortal line: “I dreamed
of about killing you again last night/ And it seemed felt all right to me.” Accordingly, the tune drifted along on mournful lap steel and synth strings until incorporating shockingly noisy blasts from the instrumentalists. Tweedy just kept singing his gentle vocals through the maelstrom. “Monday” closed the first encore, and it was a dirty, Stones-y capper. Wilco are one of the few bands around who can celebrate and poke fun at their influences and write a damn good tune in the process.
The second encore was “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” from Being There. It's pure guitar pop with snotty lyrics and hooks bouncing around the speakers like a toddler beauty queen on her go-go juice.
The fans would not be denied one more song, and they stomped and cheered loudly. Slowly, the group filtered back to the gorgeously lit and dressed stage to perform
new ballad “The Lonely 1.” The placid, hypnotic track lulled the rowdiness down to bliss, and the band departed one by one as the music echoed on. Mr. Tweedy took one last bow, doffing his hat in farewell, and disappeared.
Austin-based White Denim proved to be a forceful blend of garage-y sensibility and jam band exploration. Though the vocals were thin throughout their half-hour set, the foursome showed tremendous instrumental prowess. The songwriting only came together about half the time, but when it did (as on standout track “Street Joy”), there was no denying the gobs of mojo this young group has in reserve.
Personal Bias: This was my first time seeing Wilco, which means I have lived the past 17 years in a state of total fail.
The Crowd: White people who like Stuff White People Like.
Overheard in the Crowd: “I fucking love Wilco. I saw them at Coachella. Dude, I want to have my ashes scattered there after I die,” said a 50-ish man who could charitably be described as “intense.”
Random Notebook Dump: Wilco's guitar tech looks like Russell Hammond from Stillwater.
Set List below.
Art of Almost
Bull Black Nova
At Least That's What You Said
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
You Are My Face
I Must Be High
I'm Always in Love
War on War
Dawned on Me
A Shot in the Arm
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
The Lonely 1