A GHOST IS BORN: Jeff Tweedy & Wilco, Tower Theater, Saturday Night
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER Saturday night at the Tower theater, Wilco was merely great. The qualifying “merely” is hard to explain, because on the face of it Saturday night had all the makings of a bragging rights concert experience. Totally jazzed, way sold out crowd? Check. Storied, acoustically-friendly venue? Check. Legendary opening act, one John Doe, tragically ignored by most in favor of the beer line? Check. Must-see headliners with a live rep for fireworks ready to throw down? Check.
Perhaps the only thing missing was the element of surprise. From beginning (the folksy dirge of “Sunken Treasure” recast into an elastic, vowel-stretching talking blues) to end (the obligatory rock-out on “Outta Site”) everything went as expected. Which is both a blessing and a curse for a band like Wilco.
Wilco is an important, world-class rock band that constantly challenges its fans and itself with a dogged refusal to repeat themselves. Yet despite all that, or because of it, the band has earned stacks of critical praise as thick as dictionaries and a mass audience that spans those young enough to want to stand at a seated show, and those who like to sit at rock shows and get very upset with those who do otherwise. The last three or four times through town, Wilco seemed to be evolving right before your very ears, not just flawlessly executing the songbook but trying out still-embryonic new material and iconoclastic re-imaginings of older works long since set in stone.
Saturday night Wilco seemed a little, well, predictable.
The raw white lights and stripped-bare stage was a marked contrast to the moody mirror-ball atmospherics and kooky-but-compelling art films projected on large rear screens of recent tours. Message: We are here to play music, not put on human be-ins. Still, even in this plainly naked setting, songs like “You Are My Face” and “Shot In The Arm” were as arresting and cinematic as those stop-motion film clips of flowers blooming and then dying they used to show you in science class. This was due in no small part to the avant-pyrotechnics and jazz-like precision of guitarist Nels Cline. For much of the night Cline’s guitar work was as charismatic and scenery-chewing as Tweedy’s emotive lead vocal, which, let the record show, was in fine achy-breaky form. And the whole ensemble was a seamless mesh of nuance, warmth and rich tone colors. No wonder “Hummingbird” turned the Tower into a campfire singalong.
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[Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA/illustration by ALEX FINE]