Wilco, Smith Westerns
May 7, 2011
Better than: The female country singer loudly covering "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at some bar near campus after the show, and many, many other things.
I've seen Wilco in venues large and small, but I'd never seen them in a jungle before Saturday night. At least that's what it felt like inside the sweltering UNT Auditorium, where tightly packed rows of seating and long lines for merch led more than one fan to curse the show's promoters, who somehow convinced America's greatest rock band to play an ancient 1,500-capacity room on UNT's campus while at the same time forgetting to have anyone sell concessions.
The vending machines were sold out of drinks well before Wilco went on, and save for a single water fountain on each floor, there was nothing else to parch the thirst of the audience -- any enterprising UNT kid with a couple packs of Aquafina would have made a killing in the hallway.
Luckily, Wilco played the kind of show that made you quickly forget such problems, with a solid (if a tad predictable) setlist of hits that drew heavily from the classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but touched on every album save A.M.
Guitarist Nels Cline made his presence felt early and often, adding a jazzy guitar outro to the opening "Ashes of American Flags" and playing some mean lap steel during the still-classic "Airline to Heaven," which rode home on the emphatic handclaps of an audience clearly in awe of the musicianship on stage -- in a town full of musicians, no less.
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Though not as technically gifted, Jeff Tweedy is still Wilco's best guitarist, a fact he proved again and again on this night, whether he was switching guitars midway through "Handshake Drugs" to shred a hole in the night or giving musical voice to a couple in distress on "At Least That's What You Said," one of the best guitar songs of the past decade, hands down. And even though multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone clearly spends more time practicing his windmills than his scales, his guitar duel with Cline on the Mermaid Avenue rocker "Hoodoo Voodoo" brought the house down as well.
The live setting also brought out the more subtle elements of Wilco's sound, from drummer Glenn Kotche's intricate rhythms to John Stirratt's melodic, McCartney-esque basslines and Mikael Jorgenson's softly gurgling organ, which was downright stunning on "Jesus, Etc," one of the highlights of the set.
One might say the real MVP of the night was the band's sweet light rig, however, which turned a textured backdrop blood red for the apex of "Shot in the Arm" and lit up the house as the audience screamed "anymor-ore!" along with Tweedy, who proved once again why he's one of the most beloved figures in rock by sticking up for the audience when security frowned upon those who came forward to stand by the totally unnecessary crowd barrier. As Tweedy himself put it, "We're all gonna be arrested tonight. For inciting fun!"
Critic's Notebook: Personal Bias: I've seen Wilco 13 times going back to the mid-'90s. I fondly recall making my high school girlfriend's father idle in his car for hours outside Trees in 1997 while we caught the end of the band's set. He was pissed; it was worth it.
Random Note: Chicago's Smith Westerns opened the show with a solid set of jangly garage-pop, and closed the night by responding to internet hecklers with Andrew Bynum-like class on Twitter: "shit talkers on twitter fuck you your opinion on twitter DOESN"T MATTER fuck you."
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By The Way: Wilco's new album, tentatively titled Get Well Soon Everybody, comes out in September, but the band is keeping a tight lid on the material judging from the complete lack of new songs played on their current tour. For hardcore fans like me, this is something akin to torture.
Setlist: Ashes of American Flags Bull Black Nova I Am Trying To Break Your Heart Pot Kettle Black I'll Fight Handshake Drugs One Wing War on War Shot in the Arm At Least That's What You Said Via Chicago Jesus, Etc. Impossible Germany Airline to Heaven I Hate It Here Walken I'm the Man Who Loves You
Wilco (The Song) Red-Eyed and Blue I Got You (At the End of the Century) Hoodoo Voodoo Heavy Metal Drummer