Wilco: Live Last Night

wilco(Photo by Andi Kling)

Live Last Night

By David Malitz

The formula behind Wilco's twin ascent to being both one of the best and most popular American rock bands was on full display during its wholly satisfying performance Wednesday night at a sold-out Wolf Trap. At many points during the band's 15-year career frontman/visionary Jeff Tweedy could have steered the group down a specific path -- alt-country saviors, experimental rock iconoclasts -- but instead he's kept sound-shifting and, in fact, has spent the past few years smoothing out the edges and moving toward a more streamlined center. That's not necessarily good news on record -- the band's last two albums have expanded its fanbase but surely aren't among Wilco's most exciting.

It presents no problems at all in a live setting, though. With a stacked catalogue to cherry pick from and a variety of moods to toggle between there was a little something for everyone last night: mellow AM-radio throwback rock, bouncy pop, sullen bummers and plenty of jammy guitar epics, all delivered in the tightest possible package. If at times it seemed exceedingly professional it was never boring and quite often scintillating.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump. Setlist, too.)

While Tweedy is clearly the heart and soul of the band, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glen Kotche are just as crucial in defining Wilco's current aesthetic. There's a certain irony in recruiting one of the great current avant-garde guitarists and an equally experimentally-inclined drummer during a period in which Tweedy is writing his most straightforward songs, but there was no arguing with the results on long and winding powerhouses such as "At Least That's What You Said" and "Impossible Germany." The latter has become one of the unquestioned highlights of every Wilco show -- after a noodly buildup Cline manipulated some tasteful noise from one of his trademark Fenders while Tweedy and guitarist Pat Sansone doubled up on their own solo, creating an unstoppable triple-guitar attack that deserved every bit of mid-song applause and audience-member-high-fives it received.

The six-piece band especially excelled on the longer songs that let it explore all the textures and talents at its disposal. "Misunderstood" and "Black Bull Nova" were recorded 13 years apart with almost entirely different lineups but still felt like kindred spirits, with equally unsettling lyrics and underlying musical tension. "Handshake Drugs" was another standout, starting as a minimal, stoned shuffle before ending in a fury of messy guitar feedback. But "messy" is a relative term; this current lineup, the most stable and tenured in Wilco history, is always in complete control. There are simply no missteps. And while that means there's a certain lack of spontaneity, well, this isn't exactly a garage band playing at a local dive bar.

The epics may have been the highlights but pretty much every song was a crowd pleaser, even "Hate It Here" and "Walken," with their throwaway lyrics and simple McCartney bounce. The casual Jetta rock of "One Wing" and "You Are My Face" wasn't too exciting but seemed fitting for this particular evening and venue.

It was "Spiders," the penultimate song of the set that best captured the current state of Wilco. It's a 10-minute, Krautrock-inspired song with multiple squealing guitar sections; they aren't quite solos, at least not in the classic sense. Yet in the midst of the feedback, there were 30-somethings in khakis and flip-flops clapping along to the Motorik beat. It's hard to think of any band besides Wilco that could pull of that feat.

Set List
1) Wilco the Song
2) A Shot in the Arm
3) At Least That's What You Said
4) Bull Black Nova
5) You Are My Face
6) I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
7) One Wing
8) How to Fight Loneliness
9) Impossible Germany
10) Deeper Down
11) Jesus etc
12) Sonny Feeling
13) Handshake Drugs
14) Hate It Here
15) Walken
16) I'm the Man Who Loves You
17) Hummingbird
18) You Never Know
19) Heavy Metal Drummer
20) Misunderstood
21) Spiders (Kidsmoke)
22) I'm a Wheel

By David Malitz |  July 9, 2009; 2:16 PM ET Live Last Night
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Well that confirms my opinion that I wasn't missing anything by not going last night. Minus 19-21, that setlist looks really boring.

Posted by: agl132 | July 9, 2009 3:25 PM

Good--you were not missed.

Thanks for the set list. This was a really good show, and the guitar duels were the highligh for me.

But--why do people have to have inane conversations while bands are playing? Dude, I don't care what happened freshman year. Why waste the energy screaming it over the music? Go out to a bar intead.

Posted by: mmaid | July 9, 2009 5:01 PM

I agree with your review. I also thought Wilco played an epic show last night. However, I would like to point out that Glen Kotche has played the drums with Wilco for almost 10 years now. While he adds loads of talent and energy to Wilco, he was recruited long before this most current phase of Wilco.

Posted by: jpslette | July 9, 2009 5:03 PM

meh. the concert was average. a bit rushed and tight. perhaps the 11pm curfew killed the mood.

Posted by: gonzosnose | July 9, 2009 5:46 PM

I find it best to ignore any post, in any section, that starts with the word "meh".

Posted by: sonnyjurg | July 10, 2009 10:34 AM

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