Wilco, November 9 at the Orpheum Theatre
I had a good feeling about this show beforehand, based mainly on Wilco’s latest album, A Ghost is Born, being one of my favourite albums this year. I’m a pretty recent convert to the Wilco cause, though, and I was worried a set list heavy on the back catalogue would leave me out in the cold. The band ended up playing songs mainly from Ghost… and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album previous, so the set turned out to be ideal for a newcomer like me.
AC Newman opened up, with a six-piece band who looked like they’d be more comfortable squeezed onto the Railway Club’s stage than spread across the Orpheum’s comparatively vast expanse. Their first couple numbers sounded awful, though the songs improved as they (and the soundman) warmed up. Carl Newman mumbled between tunes, the rest of the band smiled at pals they could pick out in the crowd, and they overcame some occasionally flat material to earn a friendly reception from the audience.
Opening with “Less Than You Think“ (minus its 12-minute ambient noise denoument and featuring the refrain “There’s so much less to this than you think”—a pretty self-deprecating way to start a gig!), Wilco impressed me immediately with their ability to put across such subtle, intimate material in a large venue. You need a band of excellent players to pull that off, and that’s what Wilco are. They rocked out at various points, of course, and disassembled certain songs until they became huge squalls of feedback and noise, but the musicianship never flagged—nor did it stifle the passion in their music. Jeff Tweedy, silent during the first few songs, had some witty quips about the seated venue (comparing the event to “a rock symphony”) and Americans immigrating to Canada. He summed up the rest of the show by promising to play some pop songs to compensate for the songs that “made you want to die.” I was up for some of both—the uber-Beatley “Hummingbird,” “Wishful Thinking,” “Muzzle of Bees” (less delicate than on the album, but still superb), “Theologians,” “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Reservations,” and so on.
Tweedy played both acoustic and electric guitars, using a potent combination of Vox amp stack and Gibson SG equipped with whammy bar. When he gets up a head of steam during a solo he reminds me of Neil Young’s instinct-over-technique approach, although instead of Young’s trademark hunching over his instrument, Tweedy stands straight up and tears at the strings as if struck by sudden jolts of electricity. After each song he’d hand the SG to a roadie in trade for an in-tune model.
While certain factions in the audience were hell bent on standing through the show, everyone else was content to enjoy it with bums planted in cushy Orpheum velvet. Tweedy didn’t seem to mind people sitting as much as the people who insisted on standing did. He did point out one guy in the front row who was slouched back in his chair like he was watching TV, but for the sake of amusement, not ridicule. Maybe the crowd was being lame. On the other hand, this wasn’t exactly a full-on kick out the jams rock show (or Deep Purple, the last show I saw at the Orpheum). After the crazy and magnificent “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (on the album, the most blissful 10 minutes of music I’ve heard all year), ended the first set, everyone got to their feet and stayed that way till the lights came up.
The staging was simple, with the bonus of projections on a big screen behind the band showing constantly shifting images of buildings, birds, insects, and flowers, in accordance with the traditional/experimental, rural/urban dynamic of Wilco’s music. At show’s end, after two encores, credits for the visuals came up on the screen, cueing our trip to the exits.