Saturday, December 10, 2011

CONCERT REVIEW: Wilco (The Riverside Theatre, Milwaukee)

Wilco seems to be in a good place right now. They've long outgrown the restrictive alt-country label, branching out in a variety of directions, both experimental and populist, and they've been rewarded for their effort with critical acclaim as well as mainstream acceptance. Of all the currently active American bands, they have one of the widest appeals, and in a fractured pop music landscape, built around niche sounds, it's rather refreshing to have a band that everyone can agree on, if not liking, than at least not reviling.

Even they're choice of opening act, Nick Lowe, is classy without being pretentiously alienating. Playing solo with an acoustic guitar, Lowe ran through the highlights of an illustrious career, including "The Beast in Me" and the Rockpile tune "When I Write the Book", as well as throwing in a few covers like Elvis Costello's "Alison", a song he also produced. He's a pretty big name to be playing the warm up slot, and the sold out crowd largely gave him the respect he deserved.

Anticipation ran high as Wilco took the stage, and from the first song it was apparent that those expectations would be met, even exceeded. Given the eclectic styles synthesized into their sound, it was unsurprising, but still impressive, that they were able to transition so seamlessly from the weirder, more atmospheric numbers populating the front end of the set, through the tender ballads in the middle and on to the finely tuned pop that closed out the night. Their ability to go from delicate to urgent in the space of only a few moments is remarkable, aided in part by the band's untethered, improvisational approach that breathed new life into even their most well-worn numbers. Songs from every era of their discography, including A.M.'s "Box Full of Letters", memorable Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracks like "War on War", Heavy Metal Drummer" and 'I am Trying to Break Your Heart", and "The Art of Almost" from the brand new The Whole Love, were all sequenced into a majestic song cycle that packed an emotional punch while without skimping on the crowd-pleasers.

The visually striking, abstracted projections (which, if you looked closely included some stock footage of Milwaukee), added another evocative layer as they played and shimmered across the hundreds of pieces of cloth hanging from the rafters, giving you the sense that there was no detail of the performance that the band didn't think deeply about. On the rare occasions that de facto leader Jeff Tweedy addressed the crowd, he was gracious and friendly, albeit in his own cranky way, and the band seemed determined to leave it all on the stage, tacking on a long encore before coming back out a second time for a rendition of "Cruel to be Kind" with Nick Lowe. It was an exquisite, and quite lengthy, show; it's nice to see a band follow their muse so completely and leave so many people satisfied at the same time.

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