wilcoAs Jeff Tweedy strummed the schizophrenic chords of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” not even three songs into Wilco’s sold-out Raleigh show, a beer can hurled by an audience member scuttled past him. Beneath a black fedora, Tweedy shook his head in disapproval while glaring toward the guilty fan, and finished the tune. With the song’s cacophony of noise signaling it’s end, Tweedy placed down his acoustic guitar and walked with a purpose to the front of stage right, repeatedly mandating off microphone, “You’ve gotta fucking go” to the guilty fan in the front row. When the fan resisted and no one stepped in to help, Tweedy moved closer, getting face-to-face with him, perhaps even gripping him, until security finally intervened and escorted the man away just ahead of a potentially dangerous scuffle starting. Someone forgot to tell both Tweedy and the unruly asshole in the front row that this is supposed to be “dad rock.”

In reality, there is absolutely nothing dad-rock about Wilco when they take the stage. They’ve become as formidable of a live rock-and-roll band as there is out there, finding elevation from a cast that injects jet fuel into Tweedy’s jittery confessionals. Wilco is now in its 20th year, though that is really true in name and discography only. Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the only members that date back to Wilco’s formation, but what should really be celebrated is that this particular unit crossed their tenth anniversary together, making them by far Wilco’s longest steady, consistent roster (Glenn Kotche dates back to 2000 and Mikael Jorgensen 2002, but Nels Cline and Pat Sansone weren’t on board until 2004). Though Wilco’s most beloved records were released prior to the full incarnation of the present version of Wilco, they’ve never been a better live band and they’ve never been more of a draw.

Despite the anniversary, it hasn’t been the busiest of years for Wilco. The band pulled into an otherwise laid-back largely general-admission outdoor amphitheater on a beautiful, chilly fall night in the midst of a week-and-a-half’s worth of warm-up shows for a number of celebratory activities later in the year. Though they haven’t logged many miles in 2014, they’ve been digging deep into their catalog during this mini tour, playing nearly three-hour marathon shows at every stop. They would have been forgiven for sticking with the standards or playing sloppily, but if there’s been any rust, they certainly didn’t show it in Raleigh.

Though the night could have easily derailed after the can-throwing incident (it would be brought up during banter and in song several times), as Tweedy remained visibly steamed into and out of the thunderous “Art of Almost” that followed, to his credit the music never suffered. In actuality, the night’s first half belonged to guitarist Nels Cline, as the early set list leaned more toward Wilco’s jammy electric side. Cline brings virtuosity and consistency the late Jay Bennett never could, delivering an ability to not just produce the sounds in Tweedy’s head but to actually play them without confrontation. Cline’s finger gymnastics might be most responsible for the transcendence of Wilco as a live act and he showed why with jazzy solos on the opening “Ashes of American Flags” and later with his leads during “Impossible Germany,” while his six-string sparring with Tweedy during “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Handshake Drugs” sparked frenzies. Though the knock against Cline is that he doesn’t have Bennett’s twang or rawness, he makes up for it with the energy he supplants into classics like “Pot Kettle Black,” giving oomph where it previously wasn’t and adding colors the band never previously used.

On the A Ghost Is Born tours of 2004 and 2005 shortly after this Wilco lineup solidified, many fans became frustrated at how little the set lists changed. Focusing heavily on that record as well as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there was little variance from night to night. For those fans, this run has been a dream come true. Though Raleigh didn’t get as obscure as shows earlier in the week at the Ryman in Nashville, there were plenty of rewards for diehards. The Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtake “Cars Can’t Escape” was the night’s first chestnut, while the band also dusted off lesser-played tracks like the jangled pop of “A Magazine Called Sunset” from the More Like the Moon EP, offering a preview of the band’s upcoming rarity release. Older gems like “Box Full of Letters” and a boozy “Passenger Side” that referenced the thrown beer can were also welcome additions, as was the re-insertion of the eerie “Hell Is Chrome” back into rotation, while an acoustic take on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” that stripped out the kraut caught many by surprise. All in all, over the course of 31 songs, Wilco covered every release with the exception of Mermaid Avenue, Volume II.

While celebrating milestones, it should also be included that it’s now been over ten years since Jeff Tweedy came out of rehab. In reality, that division line might be the most significant moment in terms of Wilco’s present status. Sure, the band’s recorded output has been somewhat inconsistent since that time (and yes, occasionally exhibits some dad-rock tendency), but Tweedy has never sounded better vocally and he’s never seemed more comfortable with himself or his band. He knows what they can do, which is just about anything, and that they can match the size and ambition of its current audience on any given night. And when something unexpected happens, such as when a beer can whizzes by, Tweedy might justly become cranky, but it doesn’t take him long to remember that it’s a pretty fun gig to be in or around Wilco these days.

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