Monday, February 25, 2008

Review of Wilco

Here's my review of last night's show. This will run in tomorrow's Register.

NEW HAVEN — When the first chords of the folky "Remember the Mountain Bed" came through the PA system at the Shubert Theater at 9:02 p.m. Sunday, it sounded great. But then Wilco’s frontman Jeff Tweedy began singing and the venue’s sound system crackled like it was on the verge of breaking. Without missing a beat, the Chicago-based six-piece soldiered on and came through with a vibrant and eclectic set with only a few missteps. And after three songs, the sound guys got the problem under control.

Since Wilco released "Sky Blue Sky" almost a year ago, the band felt free to deliver a career-spanning set Sunday, not concentrating too much on any one record. After "Mountain Bed," Tweedy and company performed "California Stars," another standout from the "Mermaid Avenue" records that feature lyrics written by Woody Guthrie set to music by Wilco and British folk singer Billy Bragg. From that moment on, the two-hour show became a celebration of Wilco’s transformation from a simple alt-country unit to a one of the most celebrated experimental pop bands of our era. And even though the group was performing in a theater, a little of the bar-band it used to be poked through.

Early in the concert, Wilco focused on songs from its latest three records, playing a raucous rendition of "A Ghost Is Born’s" "Company in My Back," which was buoyed by bassist John Stirratt’s brilliant melodic playing. A beefed-up "Pot Kettle Black" sounded great coming from a six-piece band, as opposed to the recorded version that only features five members.
Experimental guitar player Nels Cline added a lot to the songs from both "A Ghost is Born" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," two records he does not appear on.

The tunes from "Sky Blue Sky," songs like "Side With Seeds" and "You Are My Face" came off not as focused, but as extended jams designed to show off the band’s chops. Besides the set-closing "On and On and On," these tracks dragged the performance down.

Wilco also tried too hard adapting earlier, simpler songs to this instrument-heavy lineup. A gem from the band’s first disc, "Pick Up The Change," is a condense and affecting tune on record, but with six musicians, the song loses the starkness that gives it charm. Without the swirling organs that are present throughout the band’s "Summerteeth" CD, the songs off that album felt lacking. Oh sure, the guitar-assault that was "Always in Love" charged up the audience, but live the song lacked the subtle nuances that give the tune character.

These are minor quibbles, though. For most of the 25-song set, Wilco hammered home that this lineup is only getting tighter on stage. A groovy take on "Jesus, etc." got the crowd dancing, and drummer Glenn Kotche enlivened the audience with a huge drum measure that signaled the beginning to one of the show’s best songs, "Misunderstood."

After closing with "On and On and On," Wilco returned to the stage for a six-song encore that saw the group returning to its bar-band days. After delivering an OK "Hate it Here" and then moving on to the crowd-pleaser "Heavy Metal Drummer," the band closed the evening with four straight songs from 1996’s "Being There."

After spending more than a decade making experimental pop and defying expectations, Wilco seemed to just want to have fun at the end of the night. A three-guitar wall of sound got the crowd jumping up and down and the band doing the same on such straightforward rock songs as "I Got You (At the End of the Century)," "Monday" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." When it was over, it would have been more appropriate if the lights turned on to reveal a beer-soaked club, not a beautiful theater.


Rufus Leaken said...

Nice, informative review. It's great to read what the show was about instead of some drivel that makes you wonder if the reviewer was actually there. Pat, I enjoy your reviews and read them all because I know I'll always learn something about the band from them.

I saw Wilco a lot in their first 5 years,from the Mercury Lounge and Irving Plaza to the Beacon, but came to really dislike Tweedy's stage persona, where he seemed to go out of his way to be a smug douchebag to the audience.

Pat Ferrucci said...

Thanks for the comments, man. And I agree with you: At some point after the release of "Summerteeth," Jeff Tweedy's stage persona changed completely. Maybe it was the drugs? Take care.