Photo by Stephie Paul
Jack of Hearts, host of Sound & Vision, catches Wilco at Pinewood Bowl Friday, September 22
I found myself thinking “the equinox rocks!” during Wilco’s visit to Lincoln Friday night (a few hours after the autumnal equinox) to kick off their fall US tour, ushering in the new season memorably with a great concert under the stars at Pinewood Bowl. Taking the stage with their casual cool, under Botticellian trees whose autumnal canopy blended nicely if serendipitously with the pinewood setting of this outdoor venue, the band created the illusion of playing in a clearing after a walk in the woods, which dovetailed nicely with their unique brand of alternative Americana. They opened with the Summerteeth classic “Via Chicago,” complete with dissonant drum and noise breaks, which set an apt tone for the show, one that aimed to please yet mix it up too, drawing liberally as they did from their 10 albums of original material. Wilco was in top form throughout the show, which was marked by the expert musicianship that we have come to know and love from this version of the band, and the melancholy ethos of its front man, Jeff Tweedy.
For an opening gig of a tour, there was never a sense of it as a dress rehearsal, with the band playing a couple of songs with altered arrangements and medleying other songs in appealing combinations while showcasing their musical interplay throughout their entire set. Besides the dissonance with which they embellished “Via Chicago,” the band offered a rootsy reworking of “Misunderstood” (with a little noise here and there still) that was as compelling as the original from Being There, while the medleys of “I am Trying to Break Your Heart/Art of Almost” and “Heavy Metal Drummer/I’m the Man Who Loves You” were early and late highlights, respectively, which I found riveting in their alternative/avant-garde fusions. Along with these medleys were other moments of sonic splendor, often featuring the fleet-fingered fretwork of lead guitarist Nels Cline, especially on the Sky Blue Sky standout “Impossible Germany” (capped off with solos by Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone counterpointing Cline’s solo), Sansone’s grungy guitar work-out on “Box Full of Letters,” one of my favorites from their debut album A.M., and Tweedy’s own solo guitar turn on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” from A Ghost Is Born. Bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche played heavy and light as necessary in service to the songs, anchoring the sound accordingly, while keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen accentuated the arrangements deftly with piano and Hammond B3. The edges they gave to the songs revealed a band that loves performing, and who are turned on by playing with one another.
Tying it all together was the quirky charisma of Tweedy, whose melancholy sensibility is alternately moody and meditative yet leavened with sweetness and insight, all of which continue to distinguish his songwriting some 30 years on. Tweedy sounded fresh and engaged on everything he tried, ranging widely throughout his repertoire and parleying confusion or love or nostalgia as easily as angst over the course of the set. He delivered impassioned versions of the songs that I have mentioned already, as well as tender readings of some of the quieter songs from his catalogue, such as “Jesus, Etc.” and “Reservations” (both from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) as well as “If I Ever Was a Child” and “Cry All Day” (both from last year’s Schmilco). His onstage banter was alternately self-deprecating (he jokingly asked how we were doing after “bumming [us] out” with the downbeat songs with which they had “frontloaded” the set) and charming (he observed that Wilco felt “spoiled” by our response to them, and that we were making it “too easy,” then jokingly encouraged us all to boo) all of which was warmly received by those who attended the show. The audience was keen to interact with him and the rest of the band, in fact, many of whom like myself could be awed by Tweedy and company.
So through it all Wilco remained loose and ingratiating while focused upon the songs at hand, moving back and forth easily from acoustic to electric rock. One can forget just how unpretentious they are onstage (for all the acclaim that has been accorded them over the years) caught up as they become in singing and playing. Their lack of pretense may explain the spare use of lighting effects and special effects during their set, with only strobe lights flashing occasionally and a few images projected upon a screen periodically, behind the artificial canopy. Wilco prefer to let the music take center stage. While I’m not as fond of the albums featuring this version of the band as I am of the previous version–I miss the pop sheen that the late Jay Bennett brought to their sound–this version of Wilco has been together for 13 years and counting, and the newer members have mastered the songs that they did not play on originally, and they play them exuberantly to boot.
Closing the first portion of the show with “The Late Greats” (from A Ghost Is Born), Tweedy sang “the best songs will never get sung/the best life never leaves your lungs.” While those of us in attendance may disagree, exhilarated as we were by their performance and the two encores that followed, he may be right. Perhaps the ambience of the show was its most memorable feature: it was a warm evening under the stars, accentuated by Wilco’s love of performing and the audience’s genuine affection for the band.
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