Wilco Gammage Auditorium Saturday, January 21, 2012
Plenty of derisive things get said about Wilco being "dad rock."
You can't get around the fact that songwriter Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline, and multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen, are indeed pushing or well into "dad age," but there's an intended sting to the tag, implying that the band has lost its edge, that the band makes music solely for graying NPR listeners and flannel-clad white kids. (A sage friend, before the show: "Sonic Youth is a $20 ticket, Wilco is $50, all because they've tapped into that Eagles demographic.")
And, sure, that's exactly who filled a sold-out Gammage Auditorium last night, but anyone expecting Wilco to "take it easy" would have been shaken by the first two songs: The 12-minute-plus "One Sunday Morning," the downcast number that closes 2011's The Whole Love, and the seven-minute art rocker "The Art of Almost," which opens the album. Say what you will about the pastoral, easy-going vibes of Wilco, but don't say that the band panders to anyone.
Whether or not you enjoy a live show by Wilco rests on one crucial question: How do you feel about guitar solos?
Avant-garde jazz guitarist Nels Cline, who joined the band in 2004, certainly makes his presence known. His signature flutter defines songs like "One Wing" and "The Whole Love," and his violent, pedal-mashing noise makes songs like "Art of Almost" work. An incredibly physical guitarist, there's an insane glee in Cline's sound. Fans of the band's early alt-country roots might find the stuff excessive, but there was no denying the live centerpiece "Impossible Germany."
The song, a kind of spiky, Television-via-Grateful Dead number from the band's most laid-back record, Sky Blue Sky, has become a live staple, and for good reason. Cline's solo section, bolstered by harmonized guitar lines from Tweedy and Sansone, is one of the most soulful moments in the Wilco catalog. Cline doesn't just shred, either. He sat down with a lap steel for tender moments like "Jesus Etc," and his inventive playing gives the power pop of "Born Alone" a post-punk dignity, while "Dawned on Me" found Cline at the helm of a double-necked beast. ("Look at that guitar," Tweedy quipped.)
Cline might indeed be an imposing figure, but Tweedy was confident at the center of stage. "I assume you are all friends of my sister," he joked, like he did when he played solo at The Orpheum in 2009, about his Phoenician sister inviting all her friends.
Tweedy seems to be in a great place. He smiles, and he even danced a little, doing a modified version of the running man sans guitar. Vocally, he sounded fantastic, with spot-on harmonies from Stirratt, Sansone, and Jorgensen sounding beautiful on "The Whole Love" and "Jesus Etc."
"It's been a long time since we've played here," Tweedy said. "Was it 2002? Oh, you guys don't know, either. Well, we always get asked to play this one when we come through here," he said, as the band slid into "Hotel Arizona" ("A true story, mostly"). The band stretched back to early records with "Box Full of Letters," one of the "first songs we ever wrote," Tweedy added.
He joked about how much the band has grown, but he's right. To a point. While the early days of Wilco found the band playing straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, the moments since have been marked by stylistic curveballs. Summerteeth's kaleidoscopic pop; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's deconstructionist spirit; A Ghost Is Born's Krautrock leanings; they've all colored Tweedy's simple, honest songs.
Songs like the closer, "I'm the Man Who Loves You." It's a wonky song, with jagged guitar riffs and clattering (expert clattering, I've got to add) drums, but the sentiment is so naked and open that you can't miss it for all the obfuscation: "If I could, you know I would / Just hold your hand and you'd understand / I'm the man who loves you."
Last Night: Wilco at Gammage Auditorium Better Than: Wilco at Centennial Hall in Tucson in 2009.
The Crowd: Look, before anyone jumps down my throat about the "white kids in flannel" crack, I am a white kid in flannel, and before anyone gets pissy about the graying NPR thing, my girlfriend has pointed out some unsightly gray hairs on my noggin and I'm streaming the latest installment of American Routes while I type, okay?
A Word on Openers White Denim: I liked what I heard a lot -- kind of a less maniacal Comets on Fire (circa Blue Cathedral), though the muffled sound had me worried that Wilco would sound the same way.
Personal Bias: I know all the words to the Loose Fur albums. Overheard: "I've never felt this good leaving a concert."
I Generally: Hate hats. But Mr. Tweedy, it worked.
"One Sunday Morning (Songs for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" "Art of Almost" "I Might" "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" "One Wing" "Bull Black Nova" "Was I in Your Dreams" "Black Moon" "Impossible Germany" "I'll Fight" "Hotel Arizona" "Jesus, Etc." "Born Alone" "Capitol City" "Handshake Drugs" "I'm Always in Love" "Dawned on Me" "Hummingbird" "A Shot in the Arm"
"Via Chicago" "Whole Love" "Box Full of Letters" "California Stars" "Heavy Metal Drummer" "Walken" "I'm the Man Who Loves You"