Wilco is one of those classic American bands, accessible yet relentlessly innovative, a perfect marriage of the avant-garde and the everyman’s pop music. On record, they have pushed themselves in new directions seemingly at frontman Jeff Tweedy’s whim. As the lineup has shifted over the past few years, their live show has evolved into a spectacular tour de force.
I saw Wilco in Milwaukee at a sold out show at the Riverside Theater, a venue with over 2,000 seats. Its been a long time since I last saw a show at a place of this size, and it was definitely quite a different experience from all the small clubs I’ve been going to over the past few years. They had a ridiculous light show that at times seemed a little ham-handed, pointing out all of the “big events” in each song with blinding white flashes. This, I think, points to some of the issues I have with these bigger concerts, which I’ll get into a little bit later.
The opener was a huge delight for me, though it seemed as though half of the audience had no interest in him. Nick Lowe took the stage unassumingly and went right into his set without an introduction. He wasn’t listed on the bill, so it was a bit of a shock to see him, and I found it strange how little fanfare there was when he played. He played a really solid acoustic set and stayed away from the hits, and most of the audience just talked through the songs. I went to the bathroom in between acts, and standing in the 15-minute line I overheard things like: “I should have pissed while that old guy was playing.” Oh well.
Wilco really is a tremendous band, and I emphasize the word band. I think it’s rare to go see a relatively new act (by which I mean a non-Classic Rock act) and not see a bunch of people singing to pre-recorded tracks. Guitarist Nels Cline had plenty of chances to shine, and while he rarely strayed from the notes he plays on the records, he is one of the most exhilarating guitarists to watch and listen to that is alive today.
Their set spanned nearly their entire career, and seemed aimed to please the masses. They touched on just about every album since Being There, and leaned heavily on longtime favorites like Can’t Stand It and Misunderstood. The band as a whole felt completely in step with each other, as if it were really these musicians who had been playing these songs for almost ten years.
While Wilco certainly didn’t shy away from samples and pre-recorded effects, they didn’t rely on them. At the center is a real rock band that could perform without them. I envy the crowd that will be seeing them next Sunday at Lincoln Hall. I expect that it will be a much less complicated event without the light show, and all the better for it.
- Wilco’s latest, The Whole Love, is available in a variety of formats and editions inside the band’s online store.