A remarkably sober Wilco took the stage at the Mershon Auditorium on Monday night, drawing a stark contrast with their last visit to the Ohio State campus.
When the band visited two years ago, they were fresh off the release of their sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky. The album had just reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 list, the band’s highest climb on the charts, and their excitement showed:
Frontman Jeff Tweedy evoked the image of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, wearing a pompadour and a white, jewel-studded suit, and the band seemed to be bubbling with energy throughout the night.
On Monday, Tweedy traded the Elvis get-up for a plain brown jacket and jeans, and the members of the six-piece band looked they were comfortable enough to be practicing in a basement rather than performing to a full house.
And maybe the band has earned that level of comfort. After their latest album, Wilco (The Album), became their second consecutive album to hit No. 4 on the charts, the band has proved that they really are one of the most talented rock bands around.
They weave genres seamlessly, moving from hard-driving blues to experimental rock to acoustic ballads without missing a beat. And the band’s technical talent is virtually unrivaled by modern rock artists. In one moment they pound out unison grooves with absolute precision, and the next moment each band member becomes a layer in the sonic atmosphere.
Part of their virtuosity can be attributed to guitarist Nels Cline, who has become a mascot of the new era of Wilco. When Cline joined the group in 2004, he brought a jazz-inspired guitar style that helped move the band past its years of experimentation and into a more mature evolution.
Fans at the show on Monday showed their appreciation for his contribution when Tweedy introduced the band. The most uproarious applause was reserved for Cline, who now seems to be the fan favorite.
Although Tweedy shied away from audience interaction for most of the show, he finally opened up late in the act with an energetic performance of “I’m The Man Who Loves You” and a sing-along rendition of the band’s most popular single, “Jesus, etc.” By the end of the set, Tweedy was cracking jokes and exuding his quirky charm that fans love.
One of the only downsides of Wilco’s live act is their ability to translate their recorded material to the stage. The problem is, they do it too well. At times, it seems like the band is simply miming their studio recordings, with limited attempts at improvisation (Cline’s solos notwithstanding).
The other downside is their tendency to drag on. During a recession, some people might call it getting your money’s worth, but others would call it overkill. During their two-and-a-half hour set, the band pumped out 27 songs, including a nine-song encore. Wilco’s die-hard fans are used to it, but it can be a turn-off for newer listeners.
Wilco, the perpetual roadsters, will wrap up this leg of their North American tour after stops in Michigan, Canada and their hometown in Chicago, but they won’t get a break anytime soon. The band packs up in November for a European tour, followed by a series of Canadian shows in February, including a free performance at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.