The first of two sold-out shows at Dublin’s Vicar Street, there’s times tonight when you buy into much of the recent nonsense that has been written about Wilco having finally found some humour to inject into the public’s dour, -difficult’ perception of the Chicago six-piece. Slapstick 1940s walk-on tunes, jokes about the state of our economy, guitar solo fights, banter with the crowd, hand-clapping and impromptu renditions of Queen’s -We Are The Champions’ all occur tonight over a two hour plus set which takes in 23 sublime songs.
It’s no real surprise. It’s not that humour hasn’t always been part of Wilco’s dynamic. Frontman Jeff Tweedy has often proved hilarious in his crowd interaction and tracks such as -Heavy Metal Drummer’ have displayed a manner where tongue has been placed firmly in cheek. But tonight Wilco, and Tweedy in particular, certainly seem more relaxed and at ease with being Wilco. As they run through a second encore that leads them from 1995’s -Box of Letters’, through to 1999’s -Can’t Stand It’ and 2004’s -I’m A Wheel’, there’s a notable sense of fun and abandonment that was ever so slightly absent over the band’s previous two excursions to these shores in as many years.
A lot of this perhaps has to do with the solid footing that the group has now found themselves upon. For the first time in the band’s 15-year history, Tweedy has found himself operating with a steady line-up. This year’s Wilco (The Album) LP and 2007’s Sky Blue Sky mark the only time that consecutive Wilco albums have been made using the same cast of characters. This naturally lends itself to a more relaxed and thus more engaging live performance.
Walking onstage to a comical score one might hear in a 1940s comedy, the band open with recent single -Wilco (the song)’ a Tweedy-penned tune about his band as a bandage, informing the sell-out crowd of devotees that whatever dog may be on their back, ‘Wilco will love you baby.’ By the fourth song in, the breath of Tweedy’s song writing and the band’s colossal strengths is hammered home. -I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’ with its broad experimental brushstrokes and rich melodies amid the dismantling of traditional song structure gives way to the more tempered -One Wing’, guitarist Nels Cline given more freedom of expression allowing the song to soar in a way it doesn’t on record. Then there’s a staggering rendition of -Shot in the Arm’, Cline and Mikael Jorgensen hammering the bejaysus out of their instruments as if unaware that they still have 20-odd songs left in the set.
Fifteen minutes in and we’ve already traversed through emotions such as concern, humour, suppressed aggression, distaste, love, hurt, aspiration, anxiety and confusion. It doesn’t stop there. New song -Bull Black Nova’ aims to take us into the world of a knife-wielding murderer but perhaps, because it’s new and the band haven’t quite figured out how to capture its rugged bleakness, it just doesn’t connect.
Better is -You Are My Face’, which softens the mood and again displays just how great Wilco are as a band in taking a song off in far interesting directions. Again, Cline lets loose and spearheads the aural assault before Tweedy regains the reigns on -I’ll Fight’ where his unparalleled gift with melody is brought to fore. By the time -Impossible Germany’ comes around it’s impossible not to drip Tweedy’s ability as a songwriter in superlatives. Few operating in America – or indeed around the world – can match his consistent skill in fusing the melodious with just the right amount of the experimental without taking from the songs’ heart. That Nels Cline again steals the song with a by-now standard absolutely stunning solo goes without saying.
Bassist John Stirratt takes the band back to their alt-country roots with early track -It’s Just That Simple’, while there’s also something in the set for the casual fan with a sweet run through long-time favourite -Jesus, etc’. The rollicking bar room blues of -Walken’ however brings band and audience right back into the groove and from here on in Vicar Street becomes a hoot. A mesh of feedback results in huge applause as -I’m The Man Who Loves You’ courses Wilco’s version of Pop through the veins of the assembled masses. -Hummingbird’ continues a fun-filled stroll to the finish line with a mass-sing-along and some clowning around on Tweedy’s part emphasising the exuberance now passing from stage to floor.
The first encore brings with it an amazing version of -Misunderstood’ with drummer Glen Kotche excelling as the band displays the fluidity of their musical chops. This continues through to -Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ as Tweedy leads the audience in handclaps before breaking into Queen. It’s bizarre but it carries in the moment. It’s time to let go. A run through sections of their past from -Box of Letters’ to a storming version of -Hoodoo Voodoo’, from 1998’s Mermaid Avenue and the punk-fuelled pop-rock of -I’m A Wheel’ closes proceedings on night one, leaving many with thoughts of a return to Vicar Street for a second night of magic. Jeff Tweedy wasn’t lying. Wilco will love you baby.