Over the course of their last four records since the acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and firing of guitarist Jay Bennett, Wilco have become less avant-garde while adding bona fide avant-garde musicians. Anyone present for the last two Solid Sound festivals—the Wilco curated festival hosted at MASS MoCA—has born witness to the solo experiments of guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. With each new record, rumors circulate of what new direction the band may be taking only to hear something similar to a previous effort.
Whether it is fair to ask a once-experimental band to remain so for their entire career is up for debate. The more appropriate question of why the band’s interstellar manna is being held at bay can be broached through cliché sports analogy: If you have Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony on your team, you wouldn’t tell them they can only take two three-point shots a game. Such has been the problem with the live presence of Nels Cline and Glen Kotche: two players with serious chops who are playing folk changes and only stretching out two or three times a set.
But Wilco’s set at Brewery Ommegang struck a balance between showcasing the tremendous talent of the group, mining gems from the band’s back catalog, and executing the vision of leader and principle songwriter, Jeff Tweedy.
The band hit their stride a few songs into their set with “Impossible Germany,” which featured an unhinged guitar solo from Cline. Whereas Cline once delivered a regurgitation of the solo committed to tape, he pulled out all the stops with finger-taps, hammer-ons, and whammy bar dive-bombs before transitioning into the triple-headed guitar harmony breakdown. From there on out, every time you looked in Cline’s direction he was vibrating in place and shredding his guitar strings.
Tweedy then led the band into a refurbished version of “Laminated Cat,” from his side project Loose Fur, formed with producer and avant-garde musician Jim O’Rourke and Kotche. On one of Tweedy’s best songwriting efforts to date he delivered juxtaposed images like “Candy left over from Halloween/The unified theory of everything/Love leftover from lovers leaving/Books they all know they’re not worth reading,” with true pathos and his signature sneer.
The set’s passages of triumphant noise, like the pierced-fuselage breakdown that ends “Poor Places,” were balanced with the cracked pop sentimentalism found on their new album, The Whole Love. “Born Alone,” with lyrics like an alliterative poetic exercise, showcased all of the band’s talents, Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone harmonized on the song’s dissonant main riff, while Kotche thrashed at his kit like Animal from the Muppets, and Tweedy delivered the line “I was born to die alone” as the band beat the song to death with an ascending chord progression. Tweedy played the role of lovable curmudgeon throughout. Looking out on a crowd that had endured rain for the majority of the first set, he remarked that they were so positive despite the weather and had such positive energy. “I hate that,” he deadpanned.
One constant of Wilco’s long career has been the generosity they show fans at live shows. They played for two and half hours, including fan favorites like “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m Always in Love,” and turned Brewery Ommegang into a flash-mob sing-along that had the vendors (also fans, I’m guessing) banging on pots and pans.
The current direction the band are taking with The Whole Love and their live set is promising. Perhaps we of the music media should be careful before we jinx it and Jeff Tweedy dismantles the whole group. Again.