Concert review: Wilco at the LC Pavilion
Considering Wilco hadn't performed live in the better part of a year, the first words frontman Jeff Tweedy uttered from the outdoor stage at LC Pavilion during a set opening "Misunderstood" felt apropos.
"Back in my old neighborhood," he sang, strumming an acoustic guitar, surrounded by the familiar faces who have now anchored the formerly unsteady lineup for the majority of the band's two-decade existence, including bassist (and founding member) John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgenson, guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.
The concert, the first in a short tour designed to mark the Chicago crew's 20th anniversary (a "Best Of collection" and a "Rarities box set" are also planned, according to a press release), doubled as a career retrospective, Tweedy and Co. easing through more than two hours of material that traced the band's evolution from alt-country pioneers to restless art-rockers to fathers and family men unafraid to sport a bit of a paunch and embrace a label like dad rock. Heck, Tweedy, 47, even used some of the recent downtime to record a solo album, Sukierae (out Sept. 16), alongside his 18-year-old son, Spencer.
This isn't to confuse comfort with complacency, however, and time and again Wilco upended expectations, veering from roots-leaning numbers that suggested Dylan and the Band to knottier guitar jams that found Tweedy and Cline trading riffs like would-be sparring partners.
Occasionally, these elements collided. The band broke up the melodic folk of "Via Chicago" with intermittent blasts of noise that clattered through like one of the Windy City's L trains rumbling overhead. "Poor Places" operated in similar fashion, with Tweedy strumming an acoustic guitar and singing earnestly as his bandmates crafted an atmospheric backdrop that started as a ghostly presence and rose to an ominous, floor-shaking buzz by song's end.
Part of this shape-shifting ability is rooted in the band members' willingness to step back when it best serves the song. In that sense, taking in a Wilco concert can feel a bit like watching a Paul Thomas Anderson ensemble film (think "Boogie Nights"), where each actor steps in and skillfully delivers without taking an undue share of the spotlight. Cline, for one, adopted multiple roles on a twitchy "Handshake Drugs," first shading the song with subtle feedback and later strangling out a barbed guitar scrawl that receded nearly as quickly as it rose up, like a fleeting auditory hallucination.
Elsewhere, Wilco flirted with waltzing country on "Forget the Flowers," a breezy song that dates to the mid-90s but somehow feels better suited to the band as its members age, Television-worthy guitar jams ("Impossible Germany," where Cline and Tweedy moved with synchronized grace) and stomping, keyboard-stoked rockers like "I'm Always In Love," which felt particularly buoyant here. "California Stars," a pretty, Woody Guthrie-penned tune Wilco has adopted as its own, briefly had audience members scanning the skies for astral bodies, a handful of which could be spotted in the late summer sky.
"It's good to be back in the saddle," Tweedy remarked at the close of "Box Full of Letters," an early song still imparted with the boozy DNA of the singer's first band, Uncle Tupelo. But based on the strength of this performance, it's hard to believe the crew ever paused from riding.