Wilco gigs offer plenty for the rock connoisseur to savour. The Chicago-based group are among the best live acts in the world but this one had a true collectors’ item – the sight of frontman Jeff Tweedy doing a jig. It happened about halfway through, just after another, hitherto almost unknown, pleasure – the famously taciturn Tweedy being chatty. When this band are on stage, wonders really do never cease.
Until that point, the brilliant curmudgeon had been doing his darnedest to scotch suggestions that he has gone soft on Wilco’s latest album, Blue Sky Blue. Since beating an addiction to painkillers, Tweedy has mellowed, this school of thought maintains. After the band’s previous two LPs, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel and A Ghost Is Born, splintered alt-country into thrillingly oblique and often dissonant shards, one US publication even described their new work as “the best Eagles album the Eagles never made”. That amounts to blasphemy in those circles which regard Wilco as “the American Radiohead”.
Certainly, Blue Sky Blue has a gentler hue than its more starkly experimental forebears but you often wouldn’t have known it from the way some of those songs were performed on Monday night. “You Are My Face” started with a solid strum, bassist John Stirratt combining with Tweedy on a Simon & Garfunkel harmony, yet as the track built, Nels Cline’s lead guitar and Glenn Kotche’s percussion burnished the edges with licks of gold. To say Wilco have mastered the quiet/loud formula doesn’t do justice either to the bipolar tendencies within their material or their formidable musicianship but it does suggest how a song that begins with a raspy whisper can end in an explosion.
Cline and Kotche both have separate careers – and solo albums – in avant-jazz improvisation, and it shows. A thin white duke in red trousers, Cline jammed his guitar into corkscrewing spirals, like a fighter jet being pushed to the limit. He seemed dizzy with G-force after each sortie but touched down again with precision on older tracks such as “Handshake Drugs”, “At Least That’s What You Said” and “A Shot In the Arm”. Kotche, meanwhile, was a marvel of acutely applied pressure. His rhythms on “I’m Only Trying to Break Your Heart”, for example, sounded like an army of toy soldiers crushing a glockenspiel underfoot.
The extra depth these two relatively recent recruits bring to Wilco was most evident on “Viva Chicago”, where a zonked-out blues was interrupted by schizoid bursts of noise. If you think the demon has been tamed, their articulate squall suggested, think again. The band’s harsh-yet-tender virtuosity was shown to best effect on the abruptly repeated phrase “nothing” during “Misunderstood”, when all six members were simultaneously ramming the brakes on a single note. Lifted from their 1996 double album, Being There, it demonstrated how much they have shifted gear.
There was obviously a debt to Neil Young and Crazy Horse in their rowdier moments but Wilco’s is not so much ragged as perfectly calibrated glory. Sometimes, as on the new track “Impossible Germany”, their diamond-cut playing seemed possibly too well-tooled. Is their brilliance perhaps too cold? But that suspicion was allayed by the second half of the gig, as Tweedy grew matey and the warmth of Wilco’s earlier personality shone through. If that’s what he has recaptured on Sky Blue Sky, many long-time fans will be delighted. After the expected pyrotechnics of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” closed the first encore, a rare outing for “California Stars” made a chiming, swaying send-off. The Eagles could only dream of flying as high as Tweedy’s gang on this form. Tel +44 0870 400 0688