While alt-country rockers Wilco’s career has been punctuated by spectacular inter-band explosions, drug addictions, sackings, bitter fights with record labels and musical segues into relatively testing electronica, one point has always remained fixed – Jeff Tweedy’s ragtag group are always an awesome proposition live.
Best exemplified by their seminal live record, Kicking Television, Wilco are an ever-changing group of musical prodigies. Led by a mad, slightly egomaniac genius, they can shift seamlessly from rollicking country into blistering white noise and back again, within the space of a few bars, and still make it sound like a soundtrack to the best party you’ve ever been to.
Relying predominantly on musicianship rather than showmanship, Tweedy shuffles about the stage in chequered jacket and porkpie hat, looking like a cross between Van Morrison, Neil Young and a beautiful crooning drunk dragged off the Camden High Road. Despite barely interacting with the audience, such is the warmth that the band exudes that the concert feels like a homecoming of a sorts. And by last track, the silly, bouncy Heavy Metal Drummer, the entire audience is bouncing and hollering along. In keeping with a group whose keyboardist looks like Alan Bennett experiencing a rather acute MDMA trip, the set looks like a second hand furniture sale in Dante‘s six and halfth ring of hell.
There’s no place in the setlist for the slightly icier cuts from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, with the group tearing through a boisterous set of old material and five or six tracks from new record The Whole Love. This, in the most part, slots in neatly alongside sing-a-long favourites Shot in the Arm and The Late Greats. The only sour note is opening newbie One Sunday Morning, a track of smooth jazz nonsense that seems to last the length of time it would take to read a Sunday broadsheet cover to cover. Luckily, it’s the only time the band indulge themselves too much, and another new track I Might – a concise, Beatles-esque stomper – is one of the night’s highlights.
Yet there is the nagging feeling that some of the newer material isn’t quite as inspired as their Summerteeth-zenith. Both The Whole Love and predecessor, Wilco – The Album, felt like a band becoming comfortable with their style; bombastic and warm rather than the sparse, uneasy guitars on songs like At Least That’s What She Said. It almost seems that there’s now a Wilco template. Rather than songs taking odd turns, the new follow a kind of mumbled verse, head bop chorus, and repeat until extensive guitar noodle outro-formula. It’s still thrilling when it goes right – Art of Almost is a real treat, with enough squelchy electronica to keep Yankee Hotel Foxtrot purists happy. But Bull Black Nova is a pretty drab, chugging slog. Even the lighting technicians seemed uninspired by a few of the tracks, lighting oldies like War on War with crashing, brilliant light but flooding Open Mind with a dull, purple glow.
Despite complaining, “We’ve been a band for 17 years … We’re all getting old,” it seems Tweedy is enjoying a new lease of life. Alongside the band’s record label and their own music festival, there’s also the promotion of a whole new generation of Tweedies to the record-buying public. And there’s a very sweet moment during the final track when his teenage son, Spencer – his band mate in faux-garage rock group The Racoonists – jams with his father at the front of the stage. It is a lovely touch that shows there is always an eye on the future.
As the concert rattles to a stop after a full two-and-a-bit-hours, country troubadour Nick Lowe, introduced by Tweedy as “our hero”, wanders on from the sidelines, looking much sleeker than he has any right to. A reverential cover of his hit Cruel to Be Kind follows, and you can see that under all the pulling and tearing guitars Wilco are – and always have been – just a simple pop act in love with good songwriting. And tonight, as always, it really shines through.
WILCO played: One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend), Poor Places, Art Of Almost, I Might, At Least That’s What You Said, Bull Black Nova, Via Chicago, Born Alone, Box Full Of Letters, War On War, Hummingbird, Whole Love, Impossible Germany, Open Mind, I’ll Fight, Pot Kettle Black, Dawned On Me, A Shot in the Arm, The Late Greats, Cruel To Be Kind (with Nick Lowe), Heavy Metal Drummer