Live review: Wilco (the band) in Jacksonville

Florida Times-UnionYou gotta be careful with the music media, a gang of credibility-seeking snobs with an often irrational obsession with new wavers, obtuse indie kids and whichever bunch of mop-topped treble-rockers have bedazzled the British press that week. They (and by“ they” I mean “we”) serve up superlatives like hanging curveballs too often, assign greatness way too quickly and are forced too regularly to correct themselves later. Happily, with Wilco, they sort of nailed it.

For a decade now, the Chicago band has spent its days raising its own bar, taunting it, then raising it some more. They’ve matured with grace, gliding from alt-country saloon guys to dark popsters to art-rockers, always with a sure touch. And as they did on last fall’s live record “Kicking Television,” they proved to a sold-out Florida Theatre on Friday night their skill and unwavering interest in using their stage not to recycle past glories, but to cast their songs in an immediate, insistent and endlessly inventive light.

“Kicking” worked because it sanded off the studio trickery of Wilco’s studio material and replaced it with rock, one of the few words that didn’t often come up in reviews of the band’s records. I’m a big fan of the sterling but polished “A Ghost Is Born,” but tracks like its oddly sinister “The Late Greats” sound fresher and fuller when allowed to roam the stage.

Take for instance “Handshake Drugs,” which rests on a deceptively comfortable bed of roots-pop before Tweedy and the super-caffeinated Nels Cline go nuts on their guitars, conjuring up walls of dissonance and distortion and exploding the song from inside out. On stage, the band turns whispers into roars, tiny piano riffs into screaming bursts of feedback, tentative moments of intimacy into more of cathartic release.

Wilco these days is all about that sonic sleight-of-hand, both on big-ticket songs (“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”) and their more intimate and accessible material (“Jesus, Etc.”). The broken ballad “At Least That’s What You said” started soft, built to a bridge of staccatos that sounded like railroad spikes being pounded into sheet rock, and broke into a sprint for the finish. “War on War” opened with a twinkling piano riff before escaping from the stage and running smack into a large pile of tricky electronic effects. This is what Wilco does: uses simple parts – a few innocent-looking guitar strums, some lullaby verses – to assemble full-blown epics, giant songs that generally end with a great messy crashing of guitar, noise and melody. But they’re also ones that, thanks to Tweedy’s fragile and expressive voice, never lose their sense of closeness.

That’s newer Wilco, anyway. Happily and surprisingly, the last third of show was turned over to those seemingly long-lost saloon rockers. They first popped their heads upon a new song, a ragtime-y number called “ Talkin’ To Myself About You” (according to the blogs, anyway, which also call the song “Walken” – guys, I beg you, go with that second one) that’s the most country-leaning thing they’ve written since the alt-country days. But they kicked the door in for good on a set that dug into “Being There.” Tweedy ripped into the top-down rocker “Monday,” the sweetly melancholy “Forget the Flowers” and the hammering “Kingpin,” as well as “California Stars” and “Airline To Heaven” from the band’s “Mermaid Avenue” collaborations with Billy Bragg.

Without those chaotic storms of sound around them, these songs were campfire singalong of a throwback variety, songs that reminded you that underneath all that praise Wilco’s just a coupla guys in a rock outfit. This is one of America’s best bands. Let’s get them back soon.

Wilco’s Jacksonville set list:

Muzzle of Bees
Handshake Drugs
The Late Greats
A Shot In The Arm
At Least That’s What You Said
Hell Is Chrome
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Jesus, Etc.
War on War
The Good Part
Talkin’ To Myself About You
Theologians
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Monday
Was I In Your Dreams
Hummingbirds
Forget The Flowers
Airline to Heaven
California Stars
Kingpin

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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