Musical Musings: Wilco at Mershon Auditorium
As someone who has now seen eight Wilco concerts, it's nearly impossible for me to review last night's stellar show at Mershon Auditorium without comparing it to past appearances by the band. Just as this current lineup has grown comfortable and loose together, I have grown familiar with what to expect from these guys. Last night fit the established mold in many ways, but it contained enough surprises to remind me that just because Wilco has found a comfortable groove doesn't mean they're coasting.
Far from it, actually. The band reinvented old tracks such as "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Via Chicago", infusing the former with extra rock power and the latter with some explosive off-time clatter (by the way, my new least favorite thing is people who cheer when a band goes from really loud to really quiet). The songs were among the night's many highlights, two snapshots from diverse stages of Wilco's history that surprisingly gelled with the rest of Wilco's increasingly unusual repertoir. I would have preferred Nels Cline stick to the unhinged, desperate electric lead from the recorded version of "Via Chicago", which he broke out once or twice, but he mostly stuck to his countrified, harmonized version.
There's little to complain about when it comes to Cline, though. When he joined Wilco three or four years ago, I wasn't sure his guitar acrobatics were the right fit. After he stumbled on stage last night—no really, dude fell so hard I thought for sure he dove on purpose—he consistently proved that his piercing, high-pitched solos are elevating Wilco's stage show to new heights.
The setlist was strong, with several songs from each album since Being There and just enough focus on new stuff from Sky Blue Sky. Speaking of the new stuff, the soulful breakdown in "You Are My Face" was an early peak, and some of the tracks that blended into an A.M.-radio blur on the album such as "Walken" and "Hate It Here" flourished as their snappy, riff-heavy chorus sections were put into their proper context—a big-time rock concert.
And boy did they sound big up there. No matter what kind of song they played—and they played many kinds of songs—the band stirred up a crushing wall of sound. They're making use of the six-man lineup to pull off arrangements that would have been dumbed down for the stage before. Speaking of using every available resource, violinist Andrew Bird's graceful guest spot on "Jesus, Etc." was a master stroke so obvious I wish I would have thought of it. More on Bird's opening set in a moment.
Jeff Tweedy's usual understated comedy and unusually gaudy Nudie suit made for a lighthearted atmosphere, as did the unfortunate absence of heavy-hearted gems such as "Ashes of American Flags" and "She's a Jar". The band did break out a few ballads, though, including a pleasant surprise from Summerteeth, an album still underrepresented in Wilco concerts. "In a Future Age" emerged during the first encore, much to my delight. The segue into "Spiders", while kind of clunky, made perfect sense.
I'm more of a fan of Wilco's mid-period pop/experimental phase, particularly Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so it's surprising that my favorite moment was the roots-rockin' second encore, capped off by three selections from Being There. That last number, "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" put this massive grin on my face. I don't even like the song that much—at least I thought I didn't—but the infectious singalong made my night.
As for Bird, his one-man show was every bit as arresting as his performance with backing musicians at the Southern Theater last spring, and twice as fascinating. Crafting sound loops from his violin, he built a woozy foundation for guitar strums, quirky melodic percussion and swooning, theatrical vocals. Bird improvised his way through seven songs, just the right prologue for Wilco's fantastic, gargantuan set.
Setlist courtesy of Via Chicago:
Andrew Bird 1. Intro 2. Sovay 3. A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left 4. Why? (stopped and restarted) 5. Spare-Ohs 6. Plasticities (stopped and restarted) 7. Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning (?)
Wilco 1. Sunken Treasure 2. You Are My Face 3. Company In My Back 4. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (noise intro) 5. Handshake Drugs 6. A Shot In The Arm 7. Side With The Seeds 8. Via Chicago 9. Impossible Germany 10. Sky Blue Sky 11. Forget the Flowers 12. Hummingbird 13. Jesus, etc. (with Andrew Bird on violin) 14. Walken 15. I’m The Man Who Loves You 16. The Late Greats
Encore 1: 17. Hate It Here 18. Heavy Metal Drummer 19. In A Future Age 20. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Encore 2: 21. Airline to Heaven 22. Too Far Apart 23. Red-Eyed & Blue 24. I Got You (At The End Of The Century) 25. Outtasite (Outta Mind)