It doesn’t happen all that often, but I love catching bands when they’re not touring on an album. Freed from the obligation of trotting out new material, these types of shows lend themselves to a more freeflowing setlist, where the group plays what it wants, not necessarily what it feels it ought to.
Such was the case Sunday night at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, where Wilco made a headlining pit stop in between opening gigs for Neil Young (I love the fact they like playing live so much they make use of their off days). Over the course of more than two hours, the Chicago sextet allowed a wonderful run of songs to unfold organically, showcasing tracks from all phases of their long and storied career.
I don’t know if this was the intent or not, but the show seemed to divide into three basic segments, opening with a run of mellow (but intense, as always) choices starting with the beautiful “Sunken Treasure” in near stage darkness. That was followed by “You Are My Face,” my favorite song off last year’s “Sky Blue Sky"; it was even more mesmerizing in person than on the record, with its great change-of-pace middle and elegant harmonies.
The fabulous Nels Cline then took the place over for a couple songs, first shredding his guitar solo on “Handshake Drugs,” then powering the rumbling crescendo of “Impossible Germany”; the latter was a definite highlight of the night as it continues to ramp up the intensity to a fantastic finish.
The band then hit the way-back machine for a trio of oldies—much to the crowd's delight—before using “Jesus, Etc.” as a transition to its more avant garde material from Wilco’s middle years. They used the combo of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” transitioning into the sprawling “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” as the centerpiece of the show; the melding was cool, but I just have never been that big a fan of “Spiders,” and felt on a we're-playin'-everything kinda night its 10 minutes could be better used with three other Wilco tracks I’d like to hear a whole lot more. That said, the songs went well together, and the transition was quite impressive. They finished this section on a splendid high note with “Shot in the Arm,” which was as expansive and powerful as I’ve ever heard it. Even at 10 years old and innumerable plays through that time, the song still seems envigorating as ever.
That, actually, aptly describes the entire evening. Frontman Jeff Tweedy was in an especially good mood, offering up just the right amount of charming banter throughout the night (and, amazingly, zero politics—hooray!). The highlight came in the encore when he started cracking wise with a person up front who was wearing a neck brace; Tweedy donned the brace for “Kingpin” to great comedic effect. The entire show was loose, lively, upbeat, and, most of all, a ton of fun. It was a nice balance of playfulness and intensity—still committed to putting on a great show, but not pressing, just letting it flow.
Following “Shot in the Arm,” the remainder of the night—spanning the end of the main set and two glorious encores—shifted into a string of more straightforward rock songs. The “Sky Blue Sky” double-shot of “Hate It Here” and “Walken,” along with their album brethren from earlier in the show, proved to me my primary frustration with that record’s rather subdued, almost claustrophobic production. In the concert setting, these songs are as vivacious as anything in the band’s catalog, but that doesn’t really come across on the rather careful studio versions.
The first encore was about as good as it gets, leading off with the always welcome “Via Chicago,” followed by the, well, always welcome “California Stars.” And Sunday’s version of “Kingpin”—complete with the nice “livin’ in … Maryland” lyrical adjustment—was just right; not too much banter and tomfoolery, but not clipped short, either.
Finally, the second encore … wow, what a way to close a show: Five songs, finishing with a “Being There” trifecta. “I Got You” and “Outtasite” are two of my favorite Wilco songs, and this was a combination I was really hoping for in anticipation of the night. They brought the house down, and sent me off into the pleasantly warm December night with a huge smile on my face.
Sunday was my third Wilco show in the past six years, and what struck me this time was the sheer breadth of their material. As mentioned earlier, to me the well-crafted setlist had three basic movements: mellow, avant garde, and flat-out rockers. The band could easily pick any one of those three styles and do an entire show from just that category; blending them all together with such effortless grace and movement was special to behold, all of it with an underlying commitment to craftsmanship that makes them one of my favorite live bands.
And one last note about the Lyric Opera House: I’d never seen a show here before, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s very nice on the inside, with a good-sized auditorium that still feels intimate; we were up on the right tier, providing an excellent view of drummer Glenn Kotche’s fiendish and highly entertaining hammering. More than anything, though, the sound and acoustics were absolutely perfect. Everything was crystal clear and mixed exactly right—one of the best-sounding concerts I’ve attended.
Lyric Opera House
Show Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
You Are My Face
War on War
It’s Just That Simple
Forget the Flowers
Box Full of Letters
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart -->
Shot in the Arm
Hate It Here
I’m the Man Who Loves You
The Late Greats
Heavy Metal Drummer
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (at the End of the Century)
Outtasite (Outta Mind)