Wilco is the yin and yang of rawk: Review of Tuesday’s show at Thomas Wolfe

It was hard to tell from the comparatively quiet opener “Sunken Treasure” that Wilco would lead into arena-style guitar mayhem and spectacle, and that guitarist Nels Cline would rock faces so hard that his mere pointing in the air would cause the crowd to flip out.

“Sunken Treasure” is the furtive beginning to the second disc of 1996’s “Being There,” the album that caused a whole slew of music-types to fall in love with the then alt-country band. How far they’ve come. “Treasure” was given a soft treatment, mostly bare of the bells/whistles/noise that Wilco weaves through many of its songs. And going directly into “Remember the Mountain Bed” gave little clue of what was to come later. (Did they play “Mountain Bed” for Asheville? Jeff Tweedy said during his awkward-but-earnest words to the audience that Asheville had “nice mountains.” Yep.)

Even “You are My Face,” the show’s third selection, begins with muted verses… but that song turns a corner into a big, burly rawk chorus, complete with signature Tweedy wails (like it or love it—is there another option?—the man can hit some high notes with real character) and giant guitar.

From then on, we were given raging instrumentation and a blinding light show that created something like an arena-style spectacle. Though my arena experiences are limited to things like seeing Pink Floyd at Death Valley Stadium in high school, a few Lollapaloozas, Radiohead at Boston’s Suffolk Downs, I think I get the picture. There are shows that literally have to go big. At the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, how big can you go? Wilco displayed mighty power with a force hard to imagine from listening to the band’s studio albums.

And to my mind, the test of a great band is its ability to destroy its own studio albums at a live show. Can the band satisfy the need of its fans to hear what they love, while reaching greater heights by making the songs new? Evolving, deconstructing, building up, twisting, making those songs different and gnarly and even better. Of course, that only works if you’ve got swell musicians, and if your audience has the heart for it. Fortunately, in Wilco’s case, both were true.

Having forgotten a pen, I was texting notes to myself, mostly: “Nels Cline is sick,” “Nels guitar god,” etc. in between song titles. Please go to his Web site and learn more. The man was unstoppable. Which makes Wilco the yin and yang of rock. Tweedy is “the boy with the poetry power,” as he sings in “Candyfloss” (a surprising choice for the evening). Though Tweedy sometimes forces lyrics (rhyming “emotion” with “locomotion” in “You Are My Face,” for example), his songwriting and structures often strike dead-on. And the ever-faithful bassist John Stirratt sings lovely harmonies. So add to that the firepower of Cline and the slaying drums of Glenn Kotche, and you’ve got light and dark, female and male, low and high: Everything. Am I exaggerating? Were you there?

Highlights of the two-and-a-half hour show (that includes 45 minutes worth of encores):
• Tweedy took his guitar off for “Hummingbird” and bent down to the audience, pulling a young girl (named Lilac?) onstage. She sang the chorus with him, and what a sweet voice she had!, and they danced together until the end of the song. Folks, it was Adorable. [And a reminder of my own age, and the age of many in the audience – Tweedy, now with his own children, has kicked his pill-popping and has come a long way from the rawness of Uncle Tupelo. But I feel like we’ve grown together. I no longer have the urge to punch people in the face as much as I did during the times of, say, “So Called Friend.” Not that Uncle Tupelo was a hardcore band so much as my affair with their music coincided with some angsty years, also I’m sure Tweedy and Jay Farrar fought it out all the time, ah but I digress.]

• All the band members had their campy-showman type moments. Multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgenson appeared to be playing his keys with a pillow during one jam (forgive me; the pillow may be some technical musical device, but I’d never seen it). The band’s other multi-instrumentalist, Pat Sansone, tossed a maraca in the air, and later sang some extended opera-style notes. And for the intro to “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” they all climbed onto their amplifiers until Kotche joined them, leaping onto his chair and raising his sticks triumphantly into the air (the two diehard fans in front of me who’d been frantically dancing the entire night looked like they might keel over from excitement). Then Wilco jumped down, each guitarist/instrumentalist at the same moment, Kotche crashing onto his drums, the band launching into the song.

• They played songs from seven different albums, including both Mermaid Avenues. “Hoodoo Voodoo” has silly words, although Tweedy’s screeching during that one reaches into some primal place. But to compensate for its silliness, Cline and Sansone had a serious guitar-off. Cline burned our faces off and then pointed to the sky again, causing the crowd to flip their sh-t. Note to crowd: Thank you for your enthusiasm and for not holding your cameras up so those behind you couldn’t see the stage. Also I apologize for being the craptastic fan sending text messages during the show, but it was all in the name of journalism.

Photos by Grace Thompson.

For more photos, see our gallery by Jason Sandford here.

Set list:
Sunken Treasure
Mountain Bed
You are my Face
I am Trying to Break Your heart
Pot Kettle Black
Handshake Drugs
She’s a Jar
Impossible Germany
Sad and Lonely
Forget the Flowers
Jesus Etc.
Always in love
Shot in the Arm
Box of Letters
Heavy Metal Drummer

Late Greats
Hate it Here
I’m the man who loves you

Hoodoo Voodoo
I’m a Wheel



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