Jan. 29, 2012
Better than: Being sad in less beautiful ways.
"This has been kind of a morbid show so far. Are you guys okay?" he asked, seemingly more serious than joking. "We figured if you're here, you probably enjoy being sad -- at least a little bit. I know I do."
Tweedy excels at writing pained songs -- some as miserably precise in their lyrics as they are desolate in their sonics. But last night, even with a setlist that included some of this Chicago band's bleakest and best moments, Wilco's two-hour performance was never morbid. Instead it felt like a solemn celebration, a bracing reminder of the magic that can happen when a songwriter, a rock band, and a relatively small audience come together in just the right way. The songs themselves may have expressed misery, but the grace and energy given to them imparted a kind of a buzzing, heartworn elation.
Part of this was knowing that Jeff Tweedy is no longer the same person he was when songs as dark as "Ashes of American Flags" were written, and that he survived the feelings that inspired them. Last night, that tune's hopeless, listless core -- "I know I would die if I could come back new" -- came through removed and distant, almost as if behind museum glass. Bolstered by immaculate sound of the house P.A. and the sinewy lines of Nels Cline's lead guitar, Tweedy didn't seem on the brink of destruction -- he seemed to be telling about having been there once.
The majority of Wilco's most dangerous songs, lyrically speaking, are older. In recent years the band has been accused of playing it safe and making "dad rock," easy listening for people who grew up with electric guitars. That Tweedy is no longer living a substance-addicted and self-destructive life is even sometimes brought up as a problem, as if it were the vices that led to his most penetrating songs.
But last night, in a show focused on the band's newest album, The Whole Love, what stood out was just how voracious, intense, and diverse Wilco's recent output has been. Having started out penning country songs with alt-rock attitude, Wilco has now morphed into a kind of American Radiohead, pushing its simple roots into odd structures and electronic instrumentation. Among the highlights of Sunday's performance was "The Art of Almost," the seven-minute opener of the latest album, which dabbled electronic bloops and samples over an itchy beat before climaxing in a breathtaking storm of screaming guitar and machine-gun drumming.
Some new songs, like the sedate "One Sunday Morning," might be too subtle for their own good. (Thankfully, last night's version didn't drag for 12 minutes like the recorded one does.) But the breezy "Standing O" and "Dawned On Me" demonstrate that Wilco is still adept at writing three-and-a-half-minute guitar rockers that truly rock. And placed in the setlist near country-flavored favorites from Wilco's first album, like "I Must Be High" or "Shouldn't Be Ashamed," it was striking how little has changed: The arrangements of the new tunes are thicker and smoother, and Tweedy's singing is more agile, but that's all to their credit. Wilco has learned a lot over its nine-album career, but it hasn't lost the ability to turn out compact, satisfying hooks that lodge themselves in your ear.
Wilco is known for its crisp live presence, and last night's show lived up to the band's reputation. Tweedy arrived looking like some time-marooned prospector in a wide-brimmed hat, denim button-up shirt, and beard. He sang with just enough smoke in his voice, and even offered some of the fractured guitar solos that haunt songs like "At Least That's What You Said," from A Ghost Is Born. Cline, who joined the band in 2004 after a career focused mostly on jazz and improvisatory music, plays the role of lead guitar wizard: His solos were fluid, fluttery affairs, swooping all over his fretboard except when he stopped to saw or hammer on a note. He would sometimes jump up and down while playing, like an agitated punk rocker.
Drummer Glenn Kotche placed fairly low in the house mix, but this was probably a good thing: From our perch, the Warfield sounded airy and immaculate, a blue-sky-after-it-rains kind of clarity, and no doubt some of that was due to the fact that the drums weren't pushed up as high as they often are at rock shows. (When Kotche pounded, though, the whole theatre still shook.) And thankfully, original member John Stirratt's bass was loud enough to give the songs a round, warm bottom.
Wilco's most important instrument -- Tweedy's voice -- rarely showed itself outside of songs. The singer was in a hurry to squeeze as much music as he could into the allotted performance time, so he didn't chat much. But Tweedy did allow himself a brief aside at the end of the main set: "We always have high expectations for you, San Francisco, and you never let us down." Last night, the same could have been said of Wilco.
Personal bias: There aren't that many bands I'd commit to watching, indefinitely, for as long as they'd play. Wilco is one of them. Especially in a show that sounded as good as last night.
Visuals: After seeing Jay-Z and Kanye West, I wrote that they had the best visuals of any big concert I'd seen, but Wilco's setup last night was dazzling. The area above the stage was draped with rows dangling weird little white bundles. These served a dual purpose: They caught the light thrown toward the stage from a giant projector, giving depth to the semi-abstract projections of cities, colors, and nature. They also turned out to be lanterns themselves, casting a warm, incandescent glow over the stage when they flashed on and off. The effect was lovely.
Opener: I'd been looking forward to seeing White Denim. But the bands spent most of its jam-heavy, 30-minute set lurching from one guitar solo to the next, with any fissures serving simply to punctuate the end or beginning of another blues-rawk jerk-off. The band closed with "Street Joy," the slow, watery single where James Petralli sounds like Jeff Buckley, and I wondered why they don't write more songs like that.
Compared to last time: I can't speak for every show Wilco has played in S.F. -- Tweedy reminded us last night that they used to take place at much smaller venues like Slim's and Great American Music Hall -- but last night's performance was at least as good as the band's incredible June 2009 show at the Greek Theatre.
By the way: Wilco plays Tuesday night at the Fox in Oakland, but it's sold out.
Setlist on next page