To be honest, we’re lucky to still have Wilco at all. Since their formation in 1994, there have been eight distinct lineups of Wilco, but seven of those came in the first turbulent nine years. Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt have been the only constants. But the current sextet has been a stable touring force since the release of A Ghost Is Born in 2004, and astonishingly, they just keep getting better, as evidenced by their masterful marathon appearance at the packed-to-the-gills Taft Theatre on Tuesday evening. The hot and humid show was the latest stop on their 20th Anniversary Tour, and the setlist consequently had a retrospective feel, part greatest hits (19 of the songs appear on last year’s sprawling What’s Your 20? best-of), part resurrection of rarities (“Panthers”?!?). Half of the show was drawn from the 2002-2004 creative burst of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born and their associated EPs, much to the crowd’s delight.
The first quarter of the show focused heavily on some of the band’s most challenging work. They took the stage to the quiet strum of “Less Than You Think,” which has only made a small handful of appearances since the Ghost Is Born tours ten years ago, and the whirling electronic squall that builds during its outro gave us the first glimpse of the truly inspired lighting design on this tour. Out of the din rose the familiar chords and bass rumble of “Handshake Drugs,” and we were off to the races. Nels Cline remains one of the most exciting guitarists on the planet, and his blitzkrieg solos received ovation upon ovation all night. “Camera” (the fuzzed-out heavier cousin to the better-known “Kamera”) made a rare appearance, but it was the tinkling intro of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” that drew the biggest response.
The buzzing coda led seamlessly into the frightening murkiness of “Art of Almost,” the opener of 2011’s The Whole Love, the band’s most recent LP. Cline once again took charge of the dramatic climax, strobe lights timed perfectly with Glenn Kotche’s pounding kickdrum. “Sunken Treasure,” making its first outing of 2015, was a wonderful surprise. For years, it was presented in a minimalist arrangement similar to Tweedy’s solo version, but here it was presented in its original form from Being There. “Secret of the Sea,” from the second Mermaid Ave. collaboration with Billy Bragg, still features one of the finest melodies they’ve ever written, and it made one wish that former member Jay Bennett was still alive to play a part in this anniversary. “Laminated Cat,” recorded by side project Loose Fur but written during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions, was a stark entry at the halfway mark, punctuated by violent guitar outbursts.
The crowd at the Taft was energetic and rowdy, possibly rolling in after a bit too much Cinco de Mayo celebration, but was also respectful for the most part, and the band took it in stride. “The thing about not having any hits,” quipped Tweedy after a spate of yelled-out requests, “is that many of you are going to leave disappointed.” He was in notably high spirits (which is not always a given; he’s got a surly streak), and bantered playfully with the audience throughout the evening. The group showed no signs of slowing down as they hurtled towards the end of the main set. “Impossible Germany” is still as impressive as any group guitar workout on the road today, and they nailed it as always. “Theologians” allowed for an introspective moment before Tweedy hit the octave-jumping riff on his Gibson SG to signal “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” and they brought the house down before leaving the stage. They returned with a vengeance a couple minutes later for a no-holds-barred all-Being There encore of “Red-Eyed and Blue,” “I Got You (At the End of the Century),” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them run through a stretch of music with such giddy fervor and reckless abandon as this, and the ensuing applause was deafening.
Then came biggest surprise of the night as the band returned for their second encore armed with acoustic instruments—Jeff and John on guitar, Pat on banjo, Nels on dobro, and Mikael on melodica. The stage was reset with a smaller drumkit, ribbon microphones, and a jagged line of bare glowing bulbs beneath the proscenium. It was a bit of a shift after the aggressive power of the first encore, but the crowd ate it up. Sky Blue Sky leftover “The Thanks I Get” was right at home in this setting, as was Uncle Tupelo relic “New Madrid.” “War on War” and “California Stars” leant themselves to sing-alongs, and Cline and Sansone traded solos on the latter. With a last word of thanks, Tweedy eased into a skeletal “A Shot In The Arm,” its needly riffs taken on by banjo and melodica, an eerie, unsettling read on one of Tweedy’s greatest compositions. We were unsuccessful in goading the band out for a third encore, but they’d been more than generous: thirty songs in two hours and twenty minutes when all was said and done. In all of my years seeing Wilco, this was not only the longest show, but undoubtedly the best. The band is invigorated, clearly enjoying exploring the depths of their sizable back catalogue, and hopefully ready to push onwards into another decade of creativity.
Brooklyn artist Steve Gunn gave an admirable (if disappointingly short) opening set, focused on songs from his fantastic 2014 LP Way Out Weather. A former member of Kurt Vile’s Violators, Gunn now has an impressive career of his own, and his trio of backing musicians laid a perfect canvas for his intricate guitar work on the title track and “Wildwood.” The sound mix, crystalline for most of Wilco, was frustratingly muddy during Gunn’s half-hour, but not enough to obscure his impressive talents. He graciously thanked us for our attention before closing with the snaking “Tommy’s Congo.” Keep your fingers crossed for a full-length, more intimate return to Cincinnati soon.
Less Than You Think
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
Pot Kettle Black
Secret of the Sea
Heavy Metal Drummer
Airline to Heaven
Box Full of Letters
Dawned on Me
A Magazine Called Sunset
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
Encore 2 (Acoustic):
The Thanks I Get
War on War
A Shot in the Arm
Check out photos from the show HERE!