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The critical buzz around Wilco’s latest, self-titled album has centered on the notion of identity. Some have heralded Wilco (the album) as a reclamation of the insouciance of the band’s early albums, while others—particularly City Paper’s own Aaron Leitko—have described it as a tour of the band’s sonic arc over the last decade. But aside the reflexivism of its latest studio release, Wilco at Wolf Trap on Wednesday reiterated what might be the band’s most enduring legacy: its ability to put on one hell of a live show.
Conor Oberst and his new entourage, the Mystic Valley Band, opened to a disappointingly sparse early-evening crowd. Perhaps the Wilco faithful hadn’t gotten the memo on Bright Eyes’s recent identity-tweaking, which has resulted in two wonderful forays into Americana, including a self-titled album of his own. Oberst hasn’t quite mastered the down-home look—he wore skinny jeans rolled to the shins above clunky loafers, along with boxy, unnecessary shades—but his lyrics were rife with roots symbology (religion, boardwalk romances, The Road, etc.), and the warmth of Mystic Valley’s jouncing chord progressions proved an unexpectedly nice vehicle for Oberst’s hoarse, often aharmonic voice. Barnburners such as “NYC–Gone, Gone,” “Moab,” and “I Don’t Wanna Die (in the Hospital)”—which seemed more suited to a sweaty juke joint—were lost on the thin, seated, pre-Wilco audience. Shame.
After entering to the theme from “The Price is Right,” Wilco opened with “Wilco (the song),” the opening/title track from the new record. Whether the album is a mission statement or a cliff notes on the band’s evolution, the song exemplifies the band’s introspective turn. The lyrics play like an infomercial: “Do you dabble in depression? / Is someone twisting a knife in your back? /Are you being attacked? / Oh, this is a fact / that you need to know /… Wilco’ll love you, baby.”
There was a lot of love in the building. A group of fans near the stage at one point stood on their seats to reveal lettered tee shirts reading “Wilco (the fans),” prompting frontman Jeff Tweedy to observe, “this parenthetical thing has really gotten out of control.” [Indeed: The venue’s souvenir kiosk featured a host of meta-merchandise, including “Wilco (the tote bag).”] The notoriously prickly Tweedy, his babyface framed by a mess of a graying, scarecrow-like hair, was in jovial spirits as well: He indulged hardcore fans with “the most requested song in the history of our Web site”—a tune called “How to Fight Loneliness,” from 1999’s Summerteeth. To the subsequent applause, Tweedy quipped: “That sounds like 36 people…” He even let The Luckiest Fan in the World—some dude wearing a blue polo in the front row—strum his solo on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” while he knelt at the edge of the stage and worked the frets.
Guitar solos, particularly those perpetrated by freakout artist Nels Cline, were the order of the night. The set list primarily featured those songs from the Wilco oeuvre that melt from easy-riding singalongs into lengthy, facemelting noise tantrums—notably Sky Blue Sky’s “Impossible Germany,” in which Cline collapsed about like a string-joint doll while Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone harmonized on the Allman Brothers-esque backing arpeggios, and A Ghost is Born’s “Handshake Drugs,” in which Cline, Tweedy, and Sansone collaborated on a dissonant shredding sesh while John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, and synther Mikael Jorgensen held together the basis groove.
These moments of still-catchy chaos were often punctuated by dramatic use of the stage lights, which would backlight the band as silhouettes against a single row of moonlike bulbs, smoldering like a landing spacecraft or a convoy of semi trucks. In one memorable instance, the lights went blinding white, illuminating Wilco in a gods-of-rock tableau centered by Kotche poised atop his drums, head thrown back, arms akimbo. Kotche then threw himself back down into his throne with a cymbal crash and launched the band into a rollicking rendition of “I’m The Man Who Loves You.” Ah, yes: love.
“The last time we played here was nine years ago,” Tweedy said at one point. “We were opening for Natalie Merchant.” Wilco’s stage charisma does well to mask the fact that the band is old enough to step back from itself far enough to make an “identity” album. But while the group’s discography is complex and variegated enough to stimulate bookish theses in critical circles, the experience of seeing Wilco perform live is a purely visceral one.
[To read Leitko’s insightful album review, click here. To see more of Brandon Wu’s photos from the show, click here. For post-show chatter on the Wilco forum Via Chicago, click here. For a sampling Wednesday’s easy-grooving/face-meltification, see the embed below (more videos from the concert here).]