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Wowed by Wilco

Observer Scene | Friday, April 17, 2009

A certain logic exists in rock and roll about a band’s trajectory. Arenas are thought of to be the penultimate goal for any group of twenty-somethings with big record collections and bigger creative Joneses. Yet, Wilco have never been much about respecting corporate notions of rock and roll.On Tuesday, America’s best live rock band took the stage at the 1,345 capacity Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. And no, that number is not missing an extra digit. Wilco could probably sell out the flipping Bradley Center – the largest arena in Milwaukee – but instead chose to treat fans to two intimate nights at one of America’s oldest – and most beautiful – rock venues. As fans rose to their feet in uproarious applause, the band opened with a thank you of their own, playing “Wilco The Song,” the opening track from their forthcoming June LP. The audience sang along and critics lauded, but Jeff Tweedy couldn’t help crack his big slanted smile, singing, “Wilco will love you, baby.” The main set continued in a greatest-hits fashion, focusing on the band’s two most lauded records, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born.” While Yankee is almost universally agreed upon as the Chicago group’s studio masterpiece, Ghost has translated to the live setting better than any other Wilco album to date. Fan favorites “Handshake Drugs” and “Muzzle of Bees” sounded as boisterous as ever as Nels Cline jerked frantically on his skull-crushing guitar solos. Three guitar attack “Impossible Germany” and Woody Guthrie penned “One By One” displayed the importance of musicianship in a band that is most loved for its leader’s lyrics, while “Ashes of American Flags” and “Via Chicago” revealed yet again that no one today writes as insightfully and hauntingly as Jeff Tweedy. The highlight of the set was the Neil Young inspired, Marquee Moon era Television influenced “At Least That’s What You Said.” The song began with Tweedy singing achingly above his hushed electric guitar as the audience fell silent at the beauty in front of them. As tears welled up in singles’ eyes and couples pensively swooned, the Ghost opener erupted into a massive Tweedy guitar solo, which was joined by a Nels Cline riff after only a minute. Clearly, the avant-garde guitar virtuoso is having an effect on his band’s benevolent dictator because Tweedy looked as brilliant as ever making his guitar say more than his voice ever could. After an hour and a half filled with jokes about jean jackets smelling like “Mostaccioli schnapps” and set staples “Jesus, Etc” and “A Shot In The Arm,” Wilco exited the stage leaving behind a fully satisfied crowd. Five short minutes later, the band returned for what would be a nine-song double encore. Die- hard Wilco fans, who were compared to Deadheads by Milwaukee Brewers announcers a night earlier, pounded their heads in unison as the unusually simple bridge of “The Late Greats” seemed like perfect company for the empty PBRs on the theater floor. It took til the end of the second encore for Wilco’s first two albums to even be touched. “A.M.” single “Box Full of Letters” inspired a sing-along as Tweedy belted out the words to his (rumored) goodbye letter to childhood friend and ex-bandmate Jay Farrar.The set ended with typical encore dweller, “Kingpin.” The band pandered to the crowd, changing “Pekin” to “Wisconsin” as Tweedy pleaded with fans to come up with a new audience response to the band’s chorus. (Typically, after Wilco sings “Kingpin,” audience members in unison bust out a sloppy “Ooooooo.”) After a couple failed alternatives, Wilco and the audience returned to their usual arrangement echoing a statement Tweedy made minutes earlier to his drummer and friend, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” Nothing could better sum up the rock world’s message to its favorite live band.