Wilco arrived in Dallas during an emotional week for both our nation and the rock and roll nation. A savage attack in Las Vegas by yet another deranged terrorist (of one form or another) had left the country stunned and saddened, and the sudden passing of Tom Petty in the same news cycle seemed unbearable. As Wilco fans made their way to the new Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory, the evening sky finally broke down and released torrents of welcome rain.
Wilco has always been hard to pin down. From their beginnings in the alternative country/No Depression recordings of the early 90’s with Uncle Tupelo and Jay Farrar they have fractured and morphed and been beset by controversies, addiction and self-doubt but have always been craftsmen of meticulous, studied Americana combined with avant guard experimentation. When they hit the stage for this weekday show at the Las Colinas venue it looked like a full house at the comfortable new venue. The stage design was dreamlike with its layered scrims of trees that enfolded the band and moved like breezes through the leaves of a sacred grove. You would think you were about to be lulled to sleep by some bluegrass folk trio given this setting but as Jeff Tweedy and company open with Cry All Day from the latest album Schmilco you know that the dream will be fraught with menace and drama.
Jeff Tweedy was dressed in full denim and a straight rimmed hat looking like some hybrid of David Crosby and Elvis Costello with his wild hair, beard and glasses. He was in a chipper mood and more talkative than the last time I saw them. You never know quite what you will get at a Wilco show but it will certainly be tailored to the bands wishes and can be anything from lots of extended jams or experimental jazz noise to polished pop rock. This night had a little of all those things but they were carefully balanced and as tight as a funeral drum.
They played for over two hours and 29 songs made their way into the set and two encores. A highlight of the night was the first song of the first encore as the sweet chords of Tom Petty’s intro to The Waiting launched the audience into a bittersweet celebration.
The Wilco lineup has undergone a few changes over the course of 10 studio albums but has settled into their best ever lineup for a few years now with original member John Stirratt on bass providing a sturdy precise foundation and former jazz guitarist Nels Cline (who made Rolling Stones’ list of 100 greatest guitarists) dazzling us with a sonic maelstrom of wonder. The other standout in the lineup is Glenn Kotche on percussion. Kotche is perhaps the most dynamic drummer in rock and he rounds up this amazing rhythm section, surprising you with off-kilter rhythms and sudden storms of angst framed by delicate jazz inspired patterns. Their is nothing like this duo in rock music.
Some have called Wilco the American midwest version of Radiohead and that seems more and more appropriate. Like their British counterpart they draw from a crazy palette of influences and are entirely committed to exploring every color and emotion possible through music. Uncompromising and as hard working as they come, they produce projects of beautiful complexity and grace.
They covered a lot of ground in the course of this show but my favorite moment was an extended and rocking version of Impossible Germany from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. It was a cathartic tapestry of elegance and power that showcased Clines guitar magic and left the crowd on its feet for the remainder of the show. Even after almost 30 songs the audience seemed ready for more. Brought to Las Colinas by Live Nation and paired with newcomer singer-songwriter Margaret Glasby, who is attracting an enthusiastic following and delivered a dozen songs of direct guitar based folk rock, this was a good intro for me to the new venue. The sound was high quality and loud enough and the seats which I admittedly wasn’t in for at least half the night had plenty of leg room and cup holders. The sight lines seem better than most of the comparable rooms in town.
Tweedy is one of our greatest living songwriters and he was in fine voice this night, at one point in the concert he asked the audience “how are you feeling tonight? …well we are feeling great because we are doing what we were born to do”. This much is clear.