Wilco just completed a short 16-gig tour of western North America to promote last year’s excellent album The Whole Love. After today, the band jets across the sea to keep the love going into Scandinavia and all points beyond. Your intrepid reporter was lucky enough to catch Wilco’s only Canadian show of the tour in Vancouver, British Columbia on 5-February-2012.
It has been fascinating to watch Wilco (the band) evolve over time. Many things are different about the band since I first saw them at the Edmonton Folk Festival in August of 2000. Back then, Wilco had just released the album Summerteeth, bookended by the Mermaid Avenue records of Woody Guthrie songs. Seeing Tweedy & Co sonically assault the chilled-out, folksy, sunset vibe on a grassy hill in Edmonton was a revelation. I’d always liked their records, but on that day I saw many clues to what a formidable live act they would become.
Fast-forward a dozen years and several roster changes, and Wilco are still in business. And business is good! The current six-man lineup has been in place for a few records now, and their shared sense of purpose and power is evident on stage. Lead singer and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy is still the ringmaster, controlling the tone and tempo of the proceedings with his voice and body english and charming, humble stage banter. That said, on Sunday night everyone in the band got a chance to shine.
Sunday night’s gig was at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Vancouver. The Orpheum was built in the 1920s during the later stages of vaudeville, and seats around 3000 patrons in opulent comfort. Red carpets, wall tapestries, crystal chandeliers, intricate carvings and frescoes abound.
Not likely to be confused with CBGB’s, then. Sometimes rock bands can get a little lost in plush surroundings like these, robbing them of their power. But no such fate awaited the wily veterans of Wilco on this night. Framed by their stage décor, which looked not unlike several dozen white bed sheets and pillow cases knotted to ropes, Wilco brought the rock to Vancouver.
Just like the Folk Festival gig all those years ago, the band took the stage and challenged their audience with a daring triptych of songs right out of the gate. The twisted beauty of one of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s hidden gems was sandwiched between The Whole Love’s two standout tracks. Starting the gig with the hushed acoustic epic “One Sunday Morning” was an unexpected treat. The band then took a hard left-turn into “Poor Places”, with its smouldering intensity and masterful blend of melody and dissonance. The first of many highlights on this evening came from “Art of Almost”. The band wrested every pound of force they could from Glenn Kotche’s drums and Nels Cline’s frantic high-wire guitar stylings. A little over twenty minutes into the gig, and we’d already gotten our money’s worth.
In all, six songs from The Whole Love made it into the setlist. “I Might” translated well to a live setting, its upbeat rhythms and new-wave melodies all but guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser. The stage arrangement of “Born Alone” also helped to accentuate the push-and-pull guitar dynamics of the song. The mid-tempo “Dawned on Me” worked well in concert, but I couldn’t help thinking that “Standing O” would be a better, tongue-in-cheek rocker to leave ringing in the audience’s ears. The campfire charm of “Whole Love” kicked off the encore, and if audiences continue to sing along to the chorus it should stay in the Wilco repertoire for many years.
Tweedy prefaced the lone Mermaid Avenue song of the evening, “California Stars”, with a brief monologue. He asked why, if the name of our home and native land is pronounced ka-na-da, then why are we called ka-NAY-dee-unz? Shouldn’t we be ka-na-DEE-unz, if only to better suit the rhythm and meter of Wilco’s next song? The grammar nerd in me thinks Jeff has a good point. At any rate, it was fun to sing along to the first few bars of the newly-christened “Ca-na-DEE-an Stars”.
Tweedy was otherwise economical with his stage banter, goofing around with some yellow penalty flags that were thrown on stage (presumably in honour of SuperBowl Sunday) and congratulating a recently engaged couple near the front. No forced shout-outs to Springfield or put-downs of North Haverbrook on this night.
Nels Cline got another chance to shine with some inimitable, tasty licks on “Impossible Germany”. The moment at which the trio of guitars from Cline, Tweedy, and Pat Sansone fuse into a glorious roar at the end of the song may be the most thrilling thing that Wilco will ever do in concert. Sansone is clearly relishing his opportunity to serve a larger role within the band. He effortlessly moves from keyboards to guitars, depending on what the song requires, and his Pete Townshend poses are always a crowd pleaser. Sansone and bassist John Stirratt are also taking on more vocal duties than ever, perhaps leveraging some new-found confidence from their Autumn Defense side project. Several songs benefitted from having three vocalists in the mix.
A few songs have also undergone some sonic renovations. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” has been reinvented as a more acoustic number, replacing its electric quiet/loud bombast with a little more subtlety. Perhaps some of that bombast was transferred to “Via Chicago”, where the ‘thunderstorm’ sections seem more jaw-droppingly cataclysmic than ever. The highlight of set closer “A Shot In The Arm” was undoubtedly the fury of sound unleashed by pianist Mikael Jorgensen. The normally bookish Jorgensen looked so animated and so caught up in the moment that, by the end of the song, I half expected him to kick over his wall of keyboards, scream “I am a golden god!!”, and leap head-first into the crowd.
The band reached way back into the catalogue for three songs from Being There to close out the encore. “Red-Eyed and Blue” was rocked-up to better match the tone of “I Got You” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”. While I appreciate hearing some of the rollicking oldies in the home stretch of a gig as much as the next guy, it may be time for the band to reinvent their encore set. With so many great songs accumulating in the Wilco songbook, there’s only so much room for numbers by the first incarnation of the band. On this night, tracks like “War on War”, “Kamera”, “At Least That’s What You Said”, “Muzzle of Bees”, and “How To Fight Loneliness” didn’t make the cut. Unless Wilco start playing three-hour gigs (not likely since Kotche’s hands would probably disintegrate), there’s never going to be enough room for everyone’s favourites. Such are the travails of having too many classic songs; qué sera sera.
On this night, Wilco faithfully delivered The Whole Love. By the time the last of the appreciative crowd’s cheers echoed off the ornate walls of the Orpheum, it was obvious that the love was mutual.
Wilco’s Setlist for 5-Feb-2012:
(from the Hermit’s notes)
- One Sunday Morning
- Poor Places
- Art of Almost
- I Might
- I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
- One Wing
- Radio Cure
- Impossible Germany
- Born Alone
- Spiders (Kidsmoke)
- I’ll Fight
- Handshake Drugs
- Via Chicago
- California Stars
- I Must Be High
- Pot Kettle Black
- Dawned on Me
- A Shot in the Arm
And for an encore:
- Whole Love
- Heavy Metal Drummer
- Red-Eyed and Blue
- I Got You (At the End of the Century)
- Outtasite (Outta Mind)
Supporting act: White Denim