Wilco @ The Wiltern, 6/23/09

It's been exactly one generation since Wilco first formed from the ashes of alt-country mavens Uncle Tupelo. Fifteen years and seven albums later, through an often tumultuous and at times heartbreaking run, it seems Wilco has finally learned to relax. Gone is the tortured soul of lead singer Jeff Tweedy, who has been forced to overcome a well documented problem with addiction and a rocky relationship with recently deceased Jay Bennett - a problematic relationship chronicled in the DVD I am Trying to Break Your Heart .

Gone are the days when Wilco would pilfer through musicians every couple of years with an array of eclectic albums that substantiated such turnover. With a steady group of universally talented musicians, and a crop of three sterling albums in five years, Tweedy and company have now found peace in perpetuity.

Which is not to say Wilco has any plans of slowing down. In the midst of a global tour for their new album, Wilco (The Album), the Chicago/L.A. sextet stopped by Southern California last week to showcase their catalog and Tweedy's humorous flair.

Through a nearly two-hour Wiltern set last week, in which they played two dozen songs from almost every album they've made, Wilco exemplified why their place in musical history is secure. Their set list showcased the strengths of every band member and featured plenty from their early days, the middle ages and a recent run of folk/rock experimentation. In short, there was something for everyone, which was quite necessary given the eclectic crowd of teenage listeners, twenty-something fans and older lovers of Wilco who might have been around since the Summerteeth days. Wilco immediately sent a nod in their direction by opening with the beautiful and chaotic Via Chicago, a slow starting ballad that gives way to a mad conflagration of percussion in which Glenn Kotche wails away halfway through the number while Tweedy calmly sings of his hometown.

Two songs later, Wilco introduced the crowd to their newest material, playing the opening number off their latest album. Wilco (The Song), which starts with a bang and ends with Tweedy promising his love to the crowd (“Wilco will love you, baby”). It was well received as applause gave way to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s opening song, I am Trying To Break Your Heart. Moving deftly from album to album, and thus, one Wilco era to the next, is always impressive for a band in which 50% of the members were not even around for the creation of nearly half of the original material.

But relatively new members Nels Cline (whom we interviewed last week) and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone have each added their own musically gifted touches to songs that were already stellar.

Cline, a free-wheeling jazz guitarist by trade, showcased his frenzied genius multiple times that night. On One Wing, Cline’s guitar looked like it controlled his gyrating body, as he contorted his way around the stage. On Impossible Germany, from Sky Blue Sky, Nels ravaged his instrument to the delight of a sold-out crowd and on Deeper Down, not content with just one instrument, he sat down with a slide guitar in his lap and a miniature guitar strapped around his chest, playing both as the second track from Wilco (The Album) progressed.

Sansone contributed with his immensely gratifying contributions on guitar and keyboard while Kotche was a mad man on the drums, showing why he is one of the most talented percussionists in rock and roll today.

Visually, the show was gorgeous. Deep red lights bathed the aggressive Bull Black Nova, from the new album and during the beautiful Reservations, from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, elegant blues showered Tweedy and Co. with great effect.

Certainly, Wilco’s musicianship is enough reason to see them every time they roll through town. But it’s Tweedy’s affability, his deprecating humor and good nature, that put Wilco’s live performances in a class all their own. It took the lead singer eight songs into the show to say hello to a warmly receptive audience, but when he finally piped up it was difficult for him to keep quiet. Thankfully.

Salesman Tweedy reminded the crowd to rush to the concession stand after the show to purchase programs before Bull Black Nova. Affable Tweedy made sure the crowd was feeling good by the next song. Appreciative Tweedy congratulated Nels after his two-instrument feat on Deeper Down. During Spiders, an 11-minute number from A Ghost is Born (an epic, undulating piece that was made to play live), Tweedy led the crowd in a series of hand claps before lowering his guitar to fans in the first row to pluck a few strings. He was funny, he was friendly and he made damn sure that those who doled out $50 bucks to see America’s greatest rock band saw a great fuckin show.

As they drew to a finish, with Tweedy dedicating the last few songs to his wife,
Wilco closed with free wheelin ditty “I’m a Wheel,” from A Ghost. With the perfect mix of exuberance and even-temperedness, Tweedy sang, “I’m gonna turn on you, turn on you” as each one of the supporting cast pounded out their notes in timely unison. The crowd clapped, the band reciprocated and Tweedy calmly walked off the stage, ready to do the same thing two nights later, confident in his showmanship, ability and everything else that makes Wilco a constant draw.

Unofficial set list:

  1. Via Chicago

  2. Company In My Back

  3. Wilco (The Song)

  4. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

  5. One Wing

  6. Shot in the Arm

  7. Side with the Seeds

  8. Bull Black Nova

  9. Jesus Etc.

  10. Impossible Germany

  11. Don't Forget the Flowers

  12. Deeper Down

  13. California Stars, with Jonathan Wilson supporting on guitar

  14. Nothinsgever

  15. Heavy Metal Drummer

  16. Magazine Called Sunset

  17. You Never Know

  18. Encore break
  19. Poor Places

  20. Reservations

  21. Spiders (Kidsmoke)

  22. Encore break
  23. The Late Greats

  24. Hate it Here

  25. Walken

  26. I'm The Man Who Loves You

  27. I'm a Wheel