“We haven’t played in about a year,” Jeff Tweedy smirked, “so you guys are getting us fresh.” It’s true; the concert Wednesday in Columbus was Wilco’s first of 2014, and at first it felt like a dusting off. They began with a batch of their oldest tunes — “Misunderstood,” “Forget The Flowers,” and “Passenger Side” — all of which fell flat. The climactic “I’d like to thank you all for nothing!” section of “Misunderstood,” in particular, was a series of dull thuds rather than the usual wallops. Be it because of a quiet mix or veteran bandmates feeling each other out after many months off, Wilco sounded like they were gradually waking up.
They shook off that slumber in noisy fits and starts: the three-guitar swarm that surrounded “Handshake Drugs,” the bombastic clatter that Glenn Kotche occasionally rained down on an otherwise gorgeously graceful “Via Chicago,” the timeless descent from beauty into chaos that is “Poor Places.” Those comprised even more old stuff, perhaps in honor of this fall’s twentieth anniversary festivities. Things really kicked into gear, though, with a pair of songs from Wilco’s most recent record, 2011’s The Whole Love. The sprawling motorik rocker “Art Of Almost” and the the infectious Elvis Costello homage “I Might” injected a new degree of vigor into the show and suggested I might need to rethink my assertion that A Ghost Is Born was the last great Wilco record.
By the time Tweedy made his “fresh” remark, 10 songs into a 26-song setlist, they resembled the momentous live act they’ve become over the past decade. Wilco are celebrating 20 years, but this incarnation of the band (Tweedy plus John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone, and Mikael Jorgensen) dates back 10, to the period immediately following A Ghost Is Born. That first tumultuous decade spawned a remarkable run of albums, but all the personnel turnover sometimes resulted in spotty live shows, particularly when they were a four-man unit trying to pull off the artful arrangements of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth. Ever since the current lineup settled in, they’ve had no trouble recreating that splendor in real-time. They’ve become a less consistently awesome studio act but a more reliably spellbinding live presence.
Wilco have always been shapeshifters, and one of the great pleasures of seeing them in concert these days is that they can pull off those stylistic transitions. Whether plumbing the vaguely avant-garde depths of the moody Loose Fur classic “Laminated Cat,” easing into the unassailable folksy ballad “Jesus, Etc.” or grooving through a soulful “Whole Love,” they sounded at home Wednesday. Still, a default remains. Eventually, as with all Wilco concerts, they settled into crowd-pleaser mode, churning out a series of upbeat heartland rockers that mostly belied the band’s artsier tendencies. “California Stars,” “Walken,” “Kingpin,” and a show-closing “I’m The Man Who Loves You” are hardly identical works, but what they have in common is approachability. Those were followed by an encore stuffed with even more sunshine of various vintage, from the ancient “Box Full Of Letters” to the relatively recent “Dawned On Me.”
Wilco have always ended their shows this way, trading delicate textures and noise swells for big riffs and steady grooves. Shifting into bar-band mode for the big finish seems to keep everybody happy, even the people who ostensibly were attracted to this band by all the sadness. For all their titanic experimental works, the one-two punch of “I Got You (At The End Of The Century)” and “Outtaside (Outta Mind)” remains arguably the most fun you can have at a Wilco concert. (By the way, not saying they should, but if Radiohead gave as much set time to The Bends as Wilco devotes to Being There, many weary traditionalists would be appeased. Incidentally, this is the second straight Wilco show in Columbus in which they did not perform a single song from Wilco (The Album).)
It’s unclear when we can expect another Wilco album. Tweedy has been busy recording the solo project Sukierae backed by his son Spencer on drums while assisting his wife, Susan, in her battle against breast cancer. Before that, he was spending a lot of time producing other people’s records. This gig represented Wilco’s first step out of dormancy, a necessary loosening up before getting back to work. But nobody seems to be in a rush because they don’t have to be. Wilco have accumulated so much glorious music that their status as a band in demand is assured. And as demonstrated Wednesday night, they’re worth waiting for.
“Forget The Flowers”
“Cars Can’t Escape”
“Art Of Almost”
“A Magazine Called Sunset”
“I’m Always In Love”
“I’m The Man Who Loves You”
“Box Full Of Letters”
“Dawned On Me”
“Heavy Metal Drummer”
“I Got You (At The End Of The Century)”
“Outtasite (Outta Mind)”
[Photos by Rachael Barbash.]