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Review: Wilco’s sound gets better with age, impresses in LC performance

Jeff Tweedy fronts Wilco on Day 3 of the Award-Winning 2014 Arts Festival Wilderness in Cornbury Park, England. Credit: Courtesy of MCT.

Jeff Tweedy fronts Wilco on Day 3 of the Award-Winning 2014 Arts Festival Wilderness in Cornbury Park, England.
Credit: Courtesy of MCT.

I’m always in love — with Wilco. And Wednesday night’s concert epitomized to me — and seemingly the vast majority of the LC Pavilion crowd — why we’ve grown to adore the alt-rock unit so much.

I’ve seen the group twice before, and the band has gotten better each time. The first time I saw the group, it was a great show featuring an encore of seminal music icons Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples performing on a cover of The Band’s “The Weight.” The second time I saw a show, it was a life-affirming, perfect musical experience. 

Wednesday night’s show was also one of only 10 shows the band is scheduled to play this year, as it is coming on the eve of the release of frontman Jeff Tweedy and his son’s album collaboration, “Sukierae.” 

So, it’s fair to say that I had some expectations coming into this show, and this is excluding the fact that I had been scheduled to see Tweedy and his band play this summer at the Taste of Chicago, but the entire day of the festival was rained out. This reporter had unfinished business with Tweedy and company, and they proved why they are held in such high regard on Wednesday.

Wilco showed the audience that it can put on a superb show, and why it has such a strong catalog of songs. In fact, the band has been referred to by acclaimed essayist Chuck Klosterman as “The American Radiohead.”

One of the things that stands out about Wilco as a live act is its setlist. It’s completely different every night, and anything from its catalog is fair game. This is in stark contrast to most bands and artists these days — good or bad, live acts usually prefer to have the same setlist (sometimes with a few differences) each night in order to minimize the chance of making mistakes on stage. So this kind of spontaneity is usually a feature reserved to jam bands like Phish and Dave Matthews Band. 

Wednesday’s show proved to be no aberration — Wilco played the obscure outtake “A Magazine Called Sunset.” The band might have been primed to open up its deep catalog of songs, ranging all the way back to its inception in 1994, as it just announced a 20th anniversary “best-of” box set — also featuring rarities — a few days ago.  

The band played a number of older songs — three from its first album (which the band doesn’t often lean on), and five from Wilco’s stellar second album, “Being There.” Older classics, such as “Via Chicago” and “Jesus, Etc.,” were haunting highlights, putting Tweedy’s seminal narrative songwriting abilities on display.

But the newer songs were, for me, the best moments of the night.  The gorgeous harmonies featured on “Whole Love,” and the mellifluous, Beatles-esque guitar melodies of “Born Alone,” were simply stunning. And one of the band’s newer musicians — guitarist and keyboardist Pat Sansone — wowed the crowd with his rockstar moves and windmills during the band’s five-star, five-song encore.

However, he was not my favorite musician on stage.

While Wilco is currently featuring its steadiest, strongest lineup (prior to the tour for 2004’s “A Ghost is Born”) and all of the musicians in the band are wonderful. Lead guitarist Nels Cline is arguably the standout, especially live. His long, jazzy and frenetic solos are eccentric and inimitable, and watching his on-stage spasms is mesmerizing. The stunner “Art of Almost” — off of Wilco’s latest album “The Whole Love” — served as one of many showcases for Cline. The song builds up to a climactic, epileptic fit of his guitar soloing, and everything on his body reflects it. And this is to say nothing of the three-guitar jamming and soloing on the band’s 2007 song “Impossible Germany,” which is another number where Cline’s jazzy playing is simply irreplaceable.

It’s not often that you see someone have a succession of out-of-body experiences playing these days. It strikes this critic as being reminiscent of the on-stage theatrics of Jimi Hendrix and The Who mastermind Pete Townshend, so it’s no wonder that Rolling Stone once named him the 82nd greatest guitarist of all time.

To get back to Klosterman’s apt analogy — deeming Wilco to be “The American Radiohead” — as someone who’s seen both bands live multiple times, it proves to be a striking comparison in concert. Both bands are criticized as having a sort of Kubrickian coldness on their studio albums, and both bands manage to add a considerable amount of warmth and depth to the songs live. Wilco’s live warmth was ever-present throughout the show.

So was this the concert of the year? I’m not 100 percent sure.

But what I am sure of is that this was quite the night in and of itself. What stood out about this show was seeing the band’s fans in action like I haven’t seen them before. The band works hard to please them, playing songs from all over the catalog and taking requests, and the crowd at the LC Pavilion certainly reciprocated. Frontman Tweedy joked that they had “weeded out the casual fans” during one sing-along, and hearing the fans who appeared to know every word harmonize during the show’s opener, “Misunderstood,” all the way to the closer, “I Got You (At the End of the Century),” vindicated his witty joke. It was listening to the band do its take on Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars” as the crowd took in the stars on a beautiful night that made me realize why I love this band.

It was talking with a fan who came from Champaign, Ill., for his 20th Wilco show and a fan who came from central Kentucky for his seventh Wilco show that proved to me that I wasn’t an anomaly or a number in a crowd. My final verdict: Not bad. Not bad at all.

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