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Until this show, it had been over 5 years since I last saw WILCO and that was at Central Park Summerstage back in the summer of 2003. At that time, they were still touring behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album that would transform them from an experimental alt-country band with an occasional jones for power-pop into the American version of RADIOHEAD, catapulting them to greater popularity as well. As such, that show was very heavy on material from Yankee. The previous time I saw them, in 2000 at Irving Plaza, JAY BENNETT was still in the band and in addition to playing material from their Mermaid Avenue records, they only had 3 records to their name at that point (The long, drawn-out process of recording Yankee, as chronicled in the excellent documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, had begun at that point.) and so they played lots of early material. I remember incredible versions of tunes from 1996’s Being There like its opener “Misunderstood” and “Hotel Arizona”, just to name a few.
Low and behold, this show was like a combination of the two previous times I’d seen them, but with several twists. The first twist, of course, was the venue. We couldn’t get tickets to their show at the Tower back in February, so we got tickets to this show and boy am I glad we did. The theater is beautiful and located conveniently right off of I-95 and in a downtown area with plentiful parking, the sound was fantastic and the place is small (at least by the standards of popular bands like Wilco who usually play much bigger places). We sat in the balcony and the view was spectacular. The place can’t hold more than 1200 people or so.
Anyhow, the second twist, of course, is that the lineup of the band has changed considerably over the last few years. The most notable change since the last time I saw them is the addition of guitarist NELS CLINE. A tall, formidable presence, he adds a dynamic insurgence of downtown New York cool with his spastic guitar work that can best be summed up as “freakouts”. This was evident on many songs throughout the evening.
Opening with a re-arranged “Sunken Treasure” from Being There, their main set focused mostly (mostly eschewing last year’s Sky Blue Sky) on their past and particularly on Yankee. and 2004’s follow-up A Ghost is Born. All told, 8 songs from Yankee and 7 songs from Ghost were played on this evening. Of these songs, Yankee’s “Pot Kettle Black” and Ghost’s Krautrock-influenced “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, which closed out the main set, were particularly thrilling. Interestingly, 1999’s Summerteeth was skipped over entirely, but Being There was represented by the aforementioned “Sunken Treasure” along a raging “Hotel Arizona” complete with one of Cline’s many guitar freakouts of the evening and a just-as-raging “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”, which the band saved for their second and final encore of the 2 hour, 15 minute show. “Hotel Arizona” had to be started and re-started on 3 separate occasions, leading to some jovial audience laughter. Wilco have been taking requests on their website for this tour, leading to them playing songs they haven’t done in a while and occasions like these, which show that even an ultra-tight band is human.
After a thrilling hour and 45 minute main set, the band showcased more material from Sky Blue Sky for the first encore, where we got a great rendition of “Hate It Here” and “Walken”, although they also performed “Impossible Germany” during the main set.
For the second and final encore, though, it was a return to the older, more straight-ahead rockers with the aforementioned “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and an unexpected rendition of “Casino Queen”, their debut album A.M.’s finest moment and the closest they came to sounding like THE ROLLING STONES circa Exile on Main Street. If I had any complaints, it was that an airing of Being There’s “Monday” (complete with the horns they used for most of the encores) would’ve fit really well and been absolutely perfect, but regardless Wilco played their hearts out, so it was hard to complain at the end of the night.
Opener JENNIFER O’CONNOR, a Matador Records signee, was backed by a band who alternated between ‘90s indie style rock ala PAVEMENT and an almost AAA sound at times. I enjoyed her set more as time went on, though none of the songs were memorable on their own.
The above photo was taken by CHRIS SIKICH and is used with permission. You can see more of his photos here.