In an age of airbrushed, hypersmooth pop performers and overnight X Factor stardom, how refreshing to spend an evening in the company of this motley-looking band, who, after 20-odd years and 10 studio albums, continue to thrill and astonish. Over that time there have been changes of personnel — Chicagoan frontman Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the sole surviving original members — but the Wilco ethos has grown and flourished, especially with the addition in 2004 of avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline, whose dexterity and taste for the less-than-obvious have taken the band’s Beatles-ish alt-country-rock template to a whole new level.
During most gigs there are moments when the attention wanders or, if the Brixton Academy is the venue, when the stickiness of the floor underfoot begins to irk. But this show was always utterly absorbing and often gripping, from the hushed start, with Tweedy singing “Normal American Kids” from their recent Schmilco album (“Always afraid of those normal American kids”), accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and Cline’s rococo electric flourishes, to the finale two hours later with the typically wistful “A Shot in the Arm”.
In between they gave us the pulsing electro-rock of “Art of Almost”, Cline’s first chance to flex his fingers, his lanky, spindly frame coiling and recoiling as he wrestled jagged phrases from his instrument; “Via Chicago”, its plaintive strum interrupted by episodes of flashing frenzy; and “Impossible Germany”, another showcase for Cline’s gifts, his epic yammering solo followed by a glorious coalescing of layered guitars. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was perhaps the only disappointment of the night, albeit a mild one, as this thrilling exercise in tension and release was given a somewhat underpowered treatment. And in the wonderful, happy-sad “Hummingbird” Cline’s guitar replicated the floating clarinets of the recorded version, Tweedy still comfortably able to reach the high notes.
The audience’s depth of affection for the band shone through in their cheers for old favourites such as “Jesus, Etc”, and in the shushes with which a handful of natterers were hushed during a couple of quieter numbers. Tweedy didn’t say much, but periodically he raised his hat to the crowd. And a hat-tip to him, too, for the paradoxical beauty of his band’s music, much of which is wreathed in melancholy but which left this listener in a state of exhilaration.