Like Radiohead, arguably the greatest band of the last decade, perhaps the greatest band of the current decade is a shape-shifting ensemble morphing through changes from album to album. From their earlier sweet country sounds of A.M. and Being There, to the folksy Sky Blue Sky, Wilco has never stopped for too long in any one spot; constantly changing band members and evolving their innovative sound to match the battered waves of leader Jeff Tweedy’s fragile psyche.
All realms of their shape-shifting self were on display recently on a rainy night at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD, as Wilco played one of their longest shows of the year; a 26 song monster that even included a Tweedy led rendition of “Happy Birthday” for multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.
Much like Radiohead, Wilco is not only capable of greatness in the studio, but also translate their message in the live setting, This evening did nothing to dissuade that notion as they took fire from the moment they hit the stage opening with “A Shot in the Arm” and carrying through an intense “Handshake Drugs,” a delicate “Hummingbird” and not letting up until the show ending “What Light”.
Wilco appeared energized by the large crowd who ignored the wet, dreary conditions and gave the band their all, despite the poor weather. The notoriously prickly Tweedy in particular seemed to be bolstered by the crowd’s enthusiasm as he made numerous comments about them and even found time to crack a joke or two, including inviting the crowd to send macramé letters to the band by just addressing them “Wilco, Chicago.” But if the night was all about jokes and macramé, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. This night was much more than that. It was a flawless show from start to well-extended finish. During the second encore, which started off with the afore-mentioned “Happy Birthday,” following their planned encore of “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “The Late Greats,” Wilco began to put down their instruments, wave and walk off stage. Tweedy would later round up his band-mates, and after a quick discussion they retook the stage and finished of with “I’m Always in Love”, “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” and a glorious “I’m a Wheel,” that saw guitarist Nels Cline seemingly strangle the life out of his guitar.
While this night was about many things, the true star of the night was Cline. Decked out in bright red pants, he spent all night flailing across the stage and working out every possible noise from his guitar, while delivering an inspiring range of jazz infected sounds that melded perfectly with Tweedy’s more primitive playing.
For all the praise Wilco has received over their career with their constant evolution, the current line-up they have now is by far their strongest, and most of that credit needs to placed on Cline. His sound leaves you craving for more, as it is not something one usually associates with a traditional rock sound; as in the twelve minute workout “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which saw Cline use what seemed to be everything he had to coax out solo after solo from his guitar. Earlier in the show he attacked his guitar with a powered drink stirrer that he used on the strings of his guitar. But in Cline’s hand it did much more than create a well-blended drink for the fans on this rainy evening in Maryland.
Photos courtesy of Richie Wireman at Wilcoworld