Monday, April 5, 2010

Wilco (the concert) ... Providence Edition

Say what you want about Wilco, but after 15 years they still deliver ... with both passion and abundance. Last night, they visited the 1,500 capacity Lupo’s in Providence’s old Strand Theater and put on a joyous, strategically-paced, three-hour onslaught of music to a completely smitten crowd.

Having seen Wilco live about eight or nine times over the past decade at venues as big as 10,000 seat arenas, I was surprised the band had chosen to play such a small venue, and the sold out show was the most crowded I’ve seen the place. Moving around was not easy, but most of us, having carved out a suitable vantage point, were planted for the duration. Wilco has made a habit of playing off-the-beaten-path places on occasion, and (unfortunately) these days Providence would qualify. The band will hit the stage in Boston at the Orpheum Theatre tomorrow night (4/6/10; slated to be webcast here).

The staging Sunday night was simple, but had some nice touches and the limited lighting was used to good effect. With six musicians and a lot of equipment, the Lupo’s stage was a tad crowded, but that didn’t stifle Wilco’s expansive music.

The band got right down to business, kicking things off with the jaunty “Wilco (the song),” including a comical segment introducing each band member. Over the next three hours they proceeded through 37 songs spanning their whole career, featuring many old favorites as well as a handful of tunes from their most recent CD, Wilco (the album).

All night long lanky guitarist Nels Cline produced subtle melodies and sound effects that gave way to frenzied bursts of jazzy, distorted chords and squealing leads behind leader Jeff Tweedy’s poppy, alt-country-meets-art-rock songs of love, loneliness, reality and remembrance. Considered a musical ace from the minute he joined the band in 2005, it took a little while for Cline to fit seamlessly into the band gestalt beyond the hired guitar-slinger role. Last night’s show, however, left no doubt about his full integration into the band.

Multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone was also very impressive in his all-purpose utility role, jumping back and forth between various keyboards and electric and acoustic guitars. Having joined the band around the same time as Nels, Pat ably patrolled the stage as part of the three guitar army with Tweedy and Cline on many songs. Long-time drummer Glenn Kotche was impressive as always, combining tastefully subtle percussion on the quiet songs and dynamic bashing on the rockers. John Stirratt, the only charter Wilco member besides Tweedy, buoyed the band on bass and harmony vocals.

Quiet man Mike Jorgensen complimented Cline’s six-string sonic assault by creating the swirling crescendos and artistic embellishments that make Wilco so much more than just another pop band. Thanks to Tweedy’s dual vision of creating something beautiful and different, ever-divergent from the expected, and Cline and Jorgensen’s combined sonic architecture, Wilco has, over the last decade, shared as much with Radiohead as they have Uncle Tupelo and the alt-country roots from whence they came.

In Sunday’s Easter night concert, the band really began to hit stride with the fourth song of the set, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the sonically cacophonous lead track from their breakthrough L.P. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A few songs later, “Sonny Feeling,” from the most recent release, was revealed to be much stronger live than on the CD. By this point the crowd was really into it, bopping along and heartily singing – which was strongly encouraged according to the pre-show do's and don’ts announcements over the P.A. (audio recording OK; photography not so ... go figure!).

More highlights came minutes later with “Misunderstood” from 1995’s Being There, which had the crowd carrying the tune lyrically as much as the sincere singer himself. This was followed shortly by a rollicking version of “Handshake Drugs.”

A few songs later the band took to the front of the stage, illuminated by shaded living room lamps, and launched into an extended acoustic set, which featured reworked versions of “Spiders” (ambitious, but I prefer it as the lengthier electric workout),” the always-timely “War on War,” the poppy “Heavy Metal Drummer” (surprisingly effective) and the satirical “Passenger Side” (with yet another boisterous crowd sing-along).

Then it was back to the electrics for “Airline to Heaven,” “A Shot in the Arm” and “Jesus, Etc.” which featured the crowd singing nearly the entire song on its own with Tweedy strumming guitar and soaking it all in at the front of the stage. Perhaps the high point of the whole night, it was quite moving and indicative that this was a crowd full of serious fans.

Speaking of which, I overheard someone saying he had heard a bartender complaining that few people were buying beer. Aside from the difficulty of getting through the crowd to the bar, this was further evidence that these people had come to really listen to Wilco, not just to party with a band in the background. I was also struck again by the fact that the Wilco crowd must be one of the politest rock crowds I’ve ever seen (i.e., in how they behaved toward one another); an obvious reflection of the ethics of the band itself.

Wilco continued the relentless, play-all-night tact with a better-than-the-record version of “Hate It Here” and a sprightly “I’m Always in Love,” before delivering a somewhat sedate version of “Theologians.” Working toward the climax of the main set, they picked things up again with “Too Far Apart” and a simply ballistic take on “Walken,” followed by “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and the exuberant old favorite “I Got You (at the End of the Century).”

The band concluded the 2 hour and 50 minute regular set with a timely and thematically appropriate rendition of the late Alex Chilton’s “Thank You Friends.” With nary enough of a pause for the musicians to take a bathroom break, they returned for a spirited, three-song encore of favorites from their first two releases A.M. (1995) and Being There (1996).

As the first song of the night promised, “Wilco will love you,” it was more than proven by the time the final notes of last song faded amid the cheers. Theirs is an abundant love.

There’s not much to criticize about this performance. The band gave it their all, playing pretty much all the hits a diehard fan would want to hear, as well as some interesting lesser-known tracks and reinventing several songs along the way. To use a sports analogy befitting Opening Day of the baseball season (the Red Sox were squeaking by the Yankees up the road at Fenway as the band played), they pretty much left it all on the field.

The only things I could be faintly critical about were “Bull Black Nova,” which I had yet to see performed live, did not quite capture the menacing power suggested on record. I suspect this was because it was only the second song in the set and the band was still working up a sweat. Had it come later in the show, it would’ve had more oomph under the hood, I’m sure. I’ve also witnessed better versions of “California Stars” and “A Shot in the Arm” on previous occasions, but that’s not to say they were bad last night – just not as transcendent as they can sometimes be. But those few minor points aside, this was a very impressive and enjoyable Wilco show.

The Full Set List:
Wilco (the song)
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
One Wing
Radio Cure
Sonny Feeling
Summer Teeth
She's A Jar
Handshake Drugs
Impossible Germany
California Stars
Poor Places

Spiders (Kidsmoke)
What’s The World Got In Store
War On War
Forget The Flowers
Heavy Metal Drummer
Laminated Cat
Passenger Side

Airline To Heaven
A Shot in the Arm
Jesus, etc.
You Never Know
I’m Always In Love
Hate It Here
[brief ”Easter Bunny” ditty, Jorgensen on solo synth]
Too Far Apart
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Thank You Friends [Big Star song]

Dreamer In My Dreams
Casino Queen
Outtasite (Outta Mind)


  1. Hi Bill,
    I was looking for something in my LinkedIn account and saw by your name that you have a blog, so I dropped by to read it. Nice job on the Wilco article; I remember talking about them with you when you were in Dallas for a meeting.

    Hope all is well with you.

    Mary Little

  2. Thanks, Mary. Nice to hear from you. I heard a podcast of Wilco's Palladium Ballroom show in Dallas last fall on the Wilco website not long ago, were you at that one?