Early in their career, I vaguely knew much about Wilco, and dismissed them as some strange alt-country/frat-rock band. Upon recent revisitations of A.M., I still see glimpses of that easily pigeonholed band. The band that took the stage at the Paramount last night may share a name and some songs, but 2010's Wilco exists in a completely different galaxy from that shy, awkward band that couldn't shake the shadow of Uncle Tupelo in 1995.
Laura Musselman Wilco played The Paramount on Wednesday, Feb. 10.
Backed by the strains of the "Price Is Right" theme, the modern-day Wilco took the stage and somehow made the sold-out Paramount even more golden for two straight hours. Starting with the catchy, self-referential "Wilco (The Song)", the band took the opportunity to introduce themselves with the chorus ("Wilco will love you, baby") as well as a break in the song with a computer voice introducing all of the cast of characters. Following up with "A Shot In The Arm" from Summerteeth, it was clear the band (guitarist Nels Cline, in particular, was in full freak-out mode) wasn't particularly interested in a quiet night or pulling punches.
While Tweedy takes his sweet time to address the crowd (it was probably eight or nine songs in before he actually said anything between songs), the band still exudes a warmth onstage. A big part of that was their current stage setup. A band like Wilco could afford to go completely over the top with stage accoutrements, but they play it perfectly cool; an abstract white backdrop appeared to be full of randomly placed blank pieces of paper, and the band was surrounded by the warm tungsten glow of some incandescent candelabra-esque light fixtures that pulsed and swelled along with "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and the glassy chime of Cline showpiece "One Wing".
The addition of savant-garde guitar master Cline has absolutely transformed and solidified this band, and bridged a giant, strange gap between the older, more classic rock-influenced crowd and the younger, more abstract indie-centric crowd. Cline takes Tweedy's compositions and adds just the right amount of beauty and overdriven dissonance on top of them, brightening the corners completely seamlessly. That same beauty and dissonance exists in his onstage character. One minute, he's lurching about onstage, running a screwdriver up and down his guitar and conjuring up devil noises; minutes later, he's smiling peacefully and gently playing lap steel. That personal and artistic dichotomy run deep within Wilco, and are a giant piece of what has kept this band relevant on album and in concert since the middle of the past decade. Cline particularly shone on the chiming "One Wing" and absolutely went supernova on the last few minutes of "Impossible Germany". Note: I'm not particularly fond of guitar wankery or fret-burning guitar solos at all, but whatever happens when Cline lets loose on "Impossible Germany" is one of the most unparalleled, magical things I've ever heard in my life. Gorgeous, chaotic, improvisational and loose, but still retaining dignity, Cline's solo is the closest thing to an out-of-body experience that I've ever had.
The set took some surprising turns ("Radio Cure", in particular, was an unexpected addition to the set), some weaker turns ("I'll Fight" from Wilco (The Album) meanders a bit too much without much payoff at the end), and when Tweedy stepped to the front of the stage and let the crowd sing the majority of "Jesus, Etc.", the room was full of that weird, communal warmth that tingles the back of your neck and makes you feel borderline love-in/hippie-ish, in the best possible way. Over the years, Tweedy has warmed up as a frontman, and become more playful. I've seen shows (years ago) where he looked lifelessly miserable and completely detached, and it still blows my mind that the bouncy 42-year-old kid who grabs the mic and runs in place during "Hummingbird" is the same guy.
Unfortunately, poor song choices made Wilco lose a lot of their momentum during the encore. The band tackled Buffalo Springfield's challenging "Broken Arrow" masterfully, but I can think of two or three Wilco originals I would've rather heard in the same span of time (would it kill you guys to play "Hotel Arizona" or "Candy Floss"?). "Via Chicago" was Wilco at their finest, building the song into an absolutely jarring tension and then releasing it; you could almost see the chaos floating away like a balloon. For local cameo cred, Bill Frisell and Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5 leader Scott McCaughey came out to lend some hands on a loose, breezy version of "California Stars". I can't imagine "You Never Know" is anyone's favorite Wilco song, but it somehow made it into the encore, followed by a fairly by-the-numbers version of "Box Full of Letters". I was expecting the band to start tackling some more Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot numbers, but time wasn't on our side. Tweedy strapped on a Gibson SG that looked like the inside layers of an Everlasting Gobstopper (possibly the ugliest guitar I've ever seen) and informed us that they were out of time as they went into "Hoodoo Voodoo". "Voodoo" is a fun live song, basically an amped-up kids' song with nonsense lyrics. While it does give Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone a chance to have a hilarious guitar solo-off/pose-off, it's the equivalent of following a masterfully prepared meal with a bag of Skittles; it's just not the last taste you want to have in your mouth after being challenged and satisfied by the rest of the offerings.
SETLIST (via ViaChicago.org)
--"The Price Is Right" theme music intro--
Wilco (the song)
A Shot in the Arm
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Pot Kettle Black
--"Happy Birthday" sung to tour manager Jason Tobias--
Jesus, etc. (crowd singalong)
Hate It Here
I'm The Man Who Loves You