While Wilco’s performance at Portland’s Thompson’s Point on July 30th is unlikely to excite their fanbase like other recent New England performances, their two hour set of Experimental Americana was a demonstration of what makes Wilco as beloved as they are and why they’re worth seeing in concert over and over again.
Earlier this summer, Wilco performed two of their most beloved albums back to back, from start to finish, at their Solid Sound Festival in Western Mass. If that wasn’t enough to get the message boards moving, the night before their performance in Portland, Maine, the Chicago-based sextet were joined on stage by folk icon and former collaborator Billy Bragg during their headlining set at the Newport Folk Festival.
Their Vacationland performance started out with a “Random Name Generator” followed by “Via Chicago” an acoustic murder ballad interwoven with spastic drum solos. “Art of Almost” has become a regular vehicle for improvisation in recent years, showcasing a monotonous drone that serves as an underbed for adventurous lead work by frontman Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline, the avant-garde freak-out jazz guitarist Tweedy brought in to replace Jay Bennett. The power struggles between Tweedy and Bennett have been discussed enough and while Cline didn’t exactly “replace” Bennett, who was a singer and a songwriter, the experimental instrumentalist has added an intentionally scattered element to Wilco’s instrumental identity that has become a major part of the bands DNA since Cline joined in 2004.
Wilco does a great job of allowing every individual member excel without shining the spotlight on anyone in particular, but they put this tendency aside during “Impossible Germany” so Nels Cline could start coloring outside the lines and show their audience what he could do. Cline can scale the neck with the proficiency of a shredmaster but what makes him standout is his ability to contort his Fender Jazzmaster into evoking rough sonic textures through a masterful manipulation of amp feedback and scratching at his strings with a spring.
In addition to numbers that leaned heavily on instrumental exploration, the group gave plenty of attention to songs like “Misunderstood,” “Hummingbird” and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” that allowed their well-versed fanbase to sing along to every word. Tweedy indulged his audience in plenty of banter throughout the night and prior to introducing “Heavy Metal Drummer” he commented that fans never shout out the same requests because they never had a hit. Throw in some colorful Trump commentary and you get a full serving of the self-deprecating humor Wilco fans have come to expect from the paradoxal frontman.
According to the setlist, the encore was supposed to be a sole run-through of “At Least That’s What You Said,” but in addition to song that opens A Ghost Is Born, Wilco performed three additional songs, including “Jesus, Etc.” and a finale of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” that was the nights high water mark. The set closer leaned heavier on Cline-esque Noise than other instrumental segments but its composure still felt tighter than usual. Drummer Glenn Kotche added to the mayhem with some fills right out of Keith Moon’s playbook and the end result was a lesson in controlled chaos. Following the traditional ending, Tweedy led the audience in a sing-a-long of the songs wordless melody before diving back into a reprise. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” has long served as a potent example of everything that makes Wilco great and their version in Portland was as inspired a take as they’ve performed in years.
Wilco’s set at Thompson’s point lacked special guests, rare covers or complete performances of beloved albums and it won’t be remembered by fans like other Summer 2017 sets. But by stripping away any semblance of novelty, Wilco demonstrated that they don’t need guests or novelty setlists to impress. At its core, Wilco has always been Midwestern Meat and Potatoes act and in that light, their performance in Portland was Wilco in its most authentic form.