“Been a long time since we’ve been in Cleveland,” Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy said at one point during the band’s show last night at the Masonic Auditorium. “It’s good to be back.” Nobody held the band’s seven-years-plus absence against them, however: Nearly all of the band’s song choices drew ecstatic (and loud) crowd sing-alongs and rapturous applause. Wilco, in turn, put a fresh coat of paint on a batch of familiar tunes during the fiery two-and-a-half-hour set.
As it’s been doing for much of this year, the band opened the night with a full run-through of its latest full-length, Star Wars
. (To the delight of many, a ceramic sculpture of the cat on the album’s cover majestically guarded the stage.) The garage-gritty record translated beautifully to the stage; in fact, this portion of the night felt like peeking into the Wilco rehearsal space and seeing the band warm up. The proto-punk grooves of “Pickled Ginger,” gritty, country-flecked metal of “Cold Slope” and the hymn-like “Magnetized” were particularly forceful, while a surging, building take on the “You Satellite”—which kept adding layers of noise and guitar texture to create both heft and volume—was transcendent.
The looser, louder vibe of Star Wars
infected the night’s song selections and the band’s performances. “Handshake Drugs” boasted a wall of electric beehive noise that ended with both frontman Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Nels Cline coaxing jagged bursts of noise from their respective instruments. “Art Of Almost” was punk rock cacophony with dripping electronic programming lurking beneath noisy, aggressive overtones—although somehow, the song held together despite the chaos—and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” felt like a raucous ’70s funk-rock jam. And for the first encore, the band dusted off “Let’s Not Get Carried Away,” an immense, Southern-grunge Sky Blue Sky
outtake that featured Tweedy screeching and howling like a wizened blues-punk sage and drummer Glenn Kotche unleashing a solo that sounded and felt like being sucked up into a tornado.
Still, the set’s mellower moments were more emotionally resonant. “Hummingbird” was especially lovely—not least because it featured summery three-part harmonies from Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt and guitarist/pianist Pat Sansone—and the simmering soft soul of “Panthers” resembled Crowded House. Plus, the sonic juxtapositions within “Via Chicago” were more pronounced—the song felt like Tweedy was fighting through a violent thunderstorm to have his acoustic guitar and subtler vocals heard above the percussion-heavy noise blurts.
Although there wasn’t much banter—save for a subtle Tweedy zinger after the Star Wars
performance, “This is our new album, Cease and Desist”—the respect the members of Wilco had for each other was obvious. When Tweedy did a solo electric take on the delicate “Where Do I Begin,” Stirratt watched him reverently; several other times, Tweedy went and hung out by Kotche’s drum kit, watching him play. And when Cline brought out a double-necked guitar for “Dawned On Me,” Tweedy visibly grinned—something he and Stirratt also did at the end of “Impossible Germany,” as they watched Cline contort himself and scratched out squealing effects during his usual solo coda.
In fact, overall, the night felt like one long, emotional catharsis: The end of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” featured Tweedy nearly screaming the titular phrase while Cline scribbled on his guitar like an artist doing pastels. And at the end of “Kamera,” Tweedy cupped his hands around his mouth to sing the line, “I know it’s not okay”; he then stepped back from the mic and mouthed the same line, a poignant and moving gesture.
Fittingly, the night ended with an extended cool down: an intimate, stripped-back acoustic set that found Tweedy and Stirratt sharing a mic, Sansone on banjo and Kotche tinkering with a variety of percussion instruments. A typically plugged-in song such as “Misunderstood” felt rejuvenated in this setting, while the country-folk leanings of “Jesus, Etc.” and “California Stars” benefitted from the campfire atmosphere. And the night-closing “A Shot In The Arm” turned into a goose bump-inducing collective experience: Both the band and audience screamed the song’s last word, “Anymore!” at the top of their lungs—a fittingly joyous way to end the night.