The song refrain in the title says it all, really. What more can you ask of a band that advertises a concert as “an evening with …” and then delivers so generously? Three sets plus an encore spanning 37 songs from every Wilco album, plus some side projects thrown in for good measure. They played for three full hours with almost no break—not even stopping to change from electric to acoustic sets!
The setting—beautiful Music Center at Strathmore—was perfect for this kind of endeavor. Tuesday night wasn’t a rock show, necessarily; it was more a refined, purposeful artistic experience. As Pearl Jam learned last year during their epic Spectrum finale, you have to pace yourself on projects of this nature. Wilco’s determined, almost stately demeanor throughout the evening fit the venue and mood of the show perfectly.
The first of three sets featured a long run of excellent choices. “Wilco (the song)” works just as well as a show opener as it does on the album, while the band’s intense performance of “Bull Black Nova” already has me rethinking my final grade of that record. Speaking of, no songs off “Wilco (the album)” were changed for me; the ones I already liked I now like even more, while the ones I didn’t like much still haven’t won me over.
The first eight songs flowed so well, all cut from the same cloth—not too rowdy, but not too soft; an easygoing pace, but never feeling lazy or tossed off. “One Wing” is as good live as I’d hoped, and “At Least That’s What You Said” was particularly impressive Tuesday night in a way it’s never been before; for some reason I was struck by how much the instrumental second half of this song is reminiscent of a tough Zeppelin rocker.
The only misstep of the first set was an ill-timed “Deeper Down,” a momentum killer whose saving grace was watching Nels Cline play two guitars at the same time (one on his lap and one on his shoulder). Sitting fifth row on Cline’s side, I had my best view ever of his work, and it was amazing. He alternately caressed and strangled whatever guitar he happened to be holding at the time, and works in a little sound-effects machine, too. Watching him play from about 20 feet away was without question the best part of the entire experience; on some of his solos, his strum hand moves faster than any human being’s should.
The final four songs of the first set marked one of the best moments of the entire show. There was a notable intensity lift in the band when they lit into the sonic discord of “Via Chicago,” and that carried over into a brilliant version of “Impossible Germany.” “Poor Places” maintained the vibe (Rahm Emanuel was in attendance and walked right past me during this song to use the bathroom—tool) then flowed into its CD trackmate, “Reservations.” At this point, with Wilco still playing the song, the crew brought out lamps, carpets, and new instruments for the band to play during its extended acoustic set at the front of the stage. There was no delay; the guys just moved down from their regular spots, took up new positions and guitars, and went right into a tremendous version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”
It’s no secret I don’t much care for “Spiders,” but this version was outstanding—they attacked it the way any good acoustic take should be attacked, and also mercifully cut it in half. If they played “Spiders” like this from now on, I’d look forward to it in every set.
The acoustic portion was worth the price of admission all by itself, particularly for “Kamera” and the side-project twofer of “Someday Some Morning Sometime”/“Laminated Cat.” Nels shone once more on the latter, his left hand dancing up and down the neck of his guitar.
They used “Airline to Heaven” to make the acoustic transition in reverse, starting with mostly just Jeff Tweedy on acoustic out front as the rest of the band reset and the lamps, carpets, etc., were removed. The rest of the guys joined in toward the end for a wonderful kaboom back into the regular show.
Cline got the re-electrified Wilco going immediately with “Ashes of American Flags,” which featured a finale to his song-ending, face-melting solo Tweedy said he’d never heard Cline play before. A decent “Jesus, etc.” singalong followed (the crowd sang the first full two verses, which was a bit of a stretch, but was mostly OK from where I was standing), before Cline strapped on a double-neck guitar for the bouncy “You Never Know” off the new record.
A run of newer rockers followed which didn’t do a whole lot for me, but, as Tweedy said, the band takes requests from the audience and from themselves, and “Handshake Drugs” is a song they like to play, for some reason. To each his own. The third set closed on a high note with “I’m the Man Who Loves You” leading into a great cover of Big Star’s “Thank You Friends” in honor of recently departed Alex Chilton.
At this point they left the stage and I figured for good, but … no, the crew was out there tightening cymbals and checking guitars, so amazingly they still had a little more to do. As Tweedy remarked early on, the motto for these shows is “leave ’em wanting less.” Well, no chance of that happening, but we certainly got our money’s worth. The first song was an audible, “Box Full of Letters”; some moron back in the balcony had been screaming for it all night, so Tweedy said he hoped the guy had left already and found out about it after the fact. Jeff was in good spirits all night—funny, self-deprecating, and just a teeny bit cantankerous, which he always kinda is.
“Hoodoo Voodoo” was next, featuring fantastic dueling guitar solos from Cline and Pat Sansone, and then they finally wrapped with “I’m A Wheel”—not one of my favorites, but it was an appropriate choice for such a high-energy encore.
Wilco tours relentlessly, so I love how they try and mix it up every year. “An Evening with Wilco” was a great idea and made for a wonderful and unique experience that set it apart from other times I’ve seen them. The format allowed them to stretch and try new things, like the acoustic set, that probably wouldn’t work in a shorter show, or one set in, say, the 9:30 Club. There were different expectations for a concert of this type, and the band easily lived up to them.
What a great night.
Music Center at Strathmore
North Bethesda, MD
Wilco (the song)
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Shot in the Arm
At Least That’s What You Said
When the Roses Bloom Again
Forget the Flowers
You and I
Someday Some Morning Sometime
When You Wake Up Feeling Old
Airline to Heaven
Ashes of American Flags
You Never Know
Heavy Metal Drummer
Hate It Here
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Thank You Friends (Big Star cover)
Box Full of Letters
I’m A Wheel
Show Time: 3 hours