After Flexing Their Muscles Again -- Jeff Tweedy and Wilco Put the Pop in Popeye

Was it worth the wait for Wilco? The answer is on the way, guaranteed to arrive a lot sooner than the band’s next scheduled visit to Denver.

One of America’s finest and hardest-working alternative rock/country acts is back on the road this month, resuming their tour in support of their Grammy-nominated 2011 album month, resuming their tour in support of their Grammy-nominated 2011 album, The Whole Love.

The first stop of the 2012 leg that began 10 consecutive sold-out dates was the Fillmore Auditoriumin Denver on January 19. For frontman Jeff Tweedy, it had a familiar, uh, smell to it.

With the emphasis on playing rock idol instead of making idle chatter, Tweedy (right) finally addressed the sellout crowd seven tunes into the lively, 26-song set.

“Hey! How’s it going?” he asked, seemingly relaxed but reserved. “Is pot legal here? Sort of? Somewhat? It smellslegal. It smells very legal.”

The smoke signals were evident in a state where medical-marijuana dispensaries have flourished since voters passed an amendment at the turn of the century. And, obviously, the question received the appropriate response from a mixed crowd of party animals, hippie wannabes and the occasional grandma and grandpa.

Not that Tweedy needed any twicks up his sleeve on this night. He sounded happy to be back at the Fillmore, the rock palace adorned with crystal chandeliers, for the first time since 2007. (Wilco did play at Red Rocks in 2009.)

John Stirratt lightsWith original bassist John Stirratt (left), longtime drummer Glenn Kotche and later additions Nels Cline(trippy electric guitar wizard), Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards) and Pat Sansone (practically everything else but the kitchen sink), the heart, mind and soul of Wilco leafed through the band’s vast musical songbook by including selections from all eight studio albums.

At first glance, the stage design appeared to be the result of a kid’s TP-ing prank, looking like rolls of Charmin hanging from the rafters. But with a dazzling lighting display, the hanging white sheets became an eerie symbolic reminder for a band and its believers that ghosts do exist.

For someone seeing them live for the first time, it was quite a history lesson, with the night’s offerings including “Box Full of Letters,” their first single from their first album ("A.M.") that was released in 1995, and "Being There’s" “Red-Eyed and Blue,” a song Tweedy introduced by rhapsodizing about “the summer of ’83 ... it was raining ... I had just gotten my teeth cleaned.”

Late to the party, my radar finally detected Wilco around the start of the new millennium, when a co-worker deemed them “the country’s best rock ‘n’ roll band ... period.” Then there was the captivating I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which documented the bad bloodletting that led to the late Jay Bennett’s imminent departure from the band. Meanwhile, ensuing battles with Reprise forced Wilco to find another label for 2002’s "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," their best record of that decade.

Tony Margherita, the band’s prescient manager, is shown during the making of the film saying, “This is the record that needs to take the band to another level. If that didn’t happen, it would be a tragic sort of missed opportunity and it would damage the band.”

The drama drew me in further, but I remained an admirer from afar.

So this Denver show provided a rare up-close and persuasive point of view. It came as no surprise that Wilco focused heavily on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," with seven selections on the 26-song setlist, most notably “Heavy Metal Drummer.” The defining chorus — ”Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned” — circulated from the front of the stage to the elevated bird’s-eye-view seats in the back. While the six songs from The Whole Love (see the entire setlist here) didn’t evoke nearly the same response, there’s reason to believe it will be the album of thisdecade for Wilco.

Jeff Tweedy howlThe inventive thread that has held firmly throughout Tweedy and Co.’s daring and dynamic career is evident again on The Whole Love, their first record on their own label (dBpm Records).

It includes all the bells and whistles, driven by Cline’s scratching and screeching on songs such as “Art of Almost” and “Dawned on Me” that take Tweedy’s catchy pop sensibilities and surreal lyrics into uncharted territory. “Born Alone” begins pleasantly enough, with a melody similar to the New Pornographers’ “Myriad Harbor,” then descends ominously through what Tweedy explained in The Atlanticwas a Shepard Tone, a series of chords that make listeners feel like they’re on the Highway to Hell — and enjoying it. The circus atmosphere of “Capitol City,” with the sounds of carnival barkers, carousel-like notes and church bells, is a nostalgic time warp, an updated companion piece to the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”

It’s no wonder Rolling Stone found a place for The Whole Love in its top 10 albums of 2011, “with the band at its original endearing best,” even though only two actually remain. While Wilco delivered to Denver almost all the crowd-pleasing rockers off the album in exceptional fashion, they disappointingly skipped “Standing O,” which was listed on the original printed setlist to follow “Heavy Metal Drummer” during the 30-minute encore. With Cline’s blazing guitars and Jorgensen’s peppy organ recalling Steve Nieve’s contribution in Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio,” hopefully it’ll become a staple on future dates as the tour continues up and down the West Coast before heading to Europe at the end of February.

Jeff Tweedy RickenbackerTweedy’s bend-but-don’t-break vocals still have an Everyman quality, and despite the shaggy hair and scruffy beard, he projects a sharp presence, whether the accessory is his 1950s Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar with the cursive inscription “Bob” or his 1966 Rickenbacker 365 in Fireglo finishpurchased about a year ago.

If Wilco is slowing down, as some critics have suggested, it isn’t affecting their status in the pop culture mainstream scheme of things.

Just this week, after performing “Whole Love” on Conan O’Brien’s TBS talk show, they became animated characters in a comic strip and black-and-white video featuring another American icon, Popeye the Sailor Man, and his sidekicks.

Despite all the extra attention, Tweedy realizes the real secret to Wilco’s success. After thanking the Denver Fillmore folks publicly for having the group back again, Olive Oyl’s new love interest said, “It’s a pretty sweet joint you got here; it’s a good rock ‘n’ roll joint; the chandeliers; I don’t think anything rocks without chandeliers. That’s just where I am in my life. You need a fuckin’ chandelier to rock.”

Jeff Tweedy backdropWhile some expected a marathon night, most seemed satisfied with a hard-hitting finale dominated by "Being There"numbers such as “I Got You (At The End of the Century)” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”

Tweedy began the encore by admitting, “I started a lot of tours here but I can feel this altitude in my haunches.”

Yet, like a certain cartoon character, he was strong to the finish, smiling down the stretch in a four-guitar assault that included Sansone impersonating Pete Townshend’s windmill moves.

After two hours of affirmative action, the answer to that initial question should be as plain as black and white for anybody who can read between the lines. If not, here goes:

Wilco will remain a popular drawing card until theydecide it's time to fade to black. And, as evidenced by the black-and-white video below, Jeff Tweedy proves again he knows how to carry a pretty good ’toon.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas.

See a slideshow of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver:

See the Wilco and Popeye video directed by Darren Romanelli:

See the Conan Web Exclusive of Wilco’s “Dawned On Me” on January 23:

Views: 1784

Tags: Denver, Fillmore Auditorium, Glenn Kotche, Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone, Tony Margherita, Wilco, More…concert

Comment by Pete on January 28, 2012 at 12:09pm

Great fucking review, man...there's so much tripe (sorry, Depressors) on this site that the good writing really shines, like a crazy diamond...i couldn't "hear" much of Wilco (The Album), it was disjointed and didn't invite me back for repeated listens...I agree with you that A Ghost is Born is my favourite, but I'd have to say Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a masterpiece -- digging the new record, hope to see them this summer? I live outside Pittsburgh, which is frequently skipped by many bands, but Wilco has made their fair share of stops -- but I'd probably skip Pittsburgh, too, which continues to book REO Speedwagon, Styx, and other staples of Classic Rock -- and they sell out! I blame WDVE, which plays the same shite that we were listening to in 1976 -- sorry, Wilco is and will remain the shit into the afterlife...

Comment by Michael Bialas on January 28, 2012 at 1:03pm
Thanks for the nice comments, Pete. Hope you get to see them touring behind this album. They cover a lot of ground, even if it is only two hours.
Comment by Skot Nelson on January 28, 2012 at 3:28pm

Nicely done. I'll have Vancouver next week.

Comment by Michael Bialas on January 29, 2012 at 11:10pm

Thanks, Skot. Look forward to hearing what you think about the show.

Comment by Paul Dionne on January 30, 2012 at 7:14am

Pete, ironically - one of the best shows I ever saw of Wilco was in Pittsburgh - they played the 3 rivers festival - things are out there if you look beyond the same shite, -

Comment by Fieldhdj on January 31, 2012 at 5:52am
Saw Wilco in Dallas this year - great show. I think the band is in great form right now. Jeff Tweedy seemed so relaxed and even danced a little to "Dawned On Me". The light show was entertaining and well done. It all added up to the best show I've seen in years.
Comment by Matthew Wester on January 31, 2012 at 7:44am

While Wilco don't mix up their catalog the way the Grateful Dead did (no repeated songs in any three consecutive nights) they do mix it up fairly well, meaning other than the five or six songs that they are currently playing every night, you can't really expect to hear a particular song, its really just the luck of the draw which I find both rewarding and frustrating at times.  If you want to up your chances of hearing a particular song, you probably need to  go see them several nights in a row.  They also have a neat feature on their own website where you can request any song from their catalog for each show they play, and they do frequently play those requests.

I agree, Wilco are still at the top of their game and I feel they are one of a handful of the best live rock bands currently playing regularly.  And they cover a wide range of styles and moods in a given concert, really they are master-architects of the emotional ebb and flow of a rock show.  If you are not sure you like them, definitely see them live and/or watch their concert DVD Ashes Of American Flags.

Comment by leo mays on January 31, 2012 at 8:20am

Since Tweedy cleaned up he has projected a more strung out look on stage. Haven't seen him live yet, as I live in central america, but I will say he's one of the troubadours of Guthrie's discipleship and I own just about everything he's put out since SonVolt's break up. Can't wait to catch a show.

Comment by Ms H on January 31, 2012 at 8:51am

Based on this tour, fraught with sold-out stadium shows at $50 a ticket, I think Wilco's here to stay and will only get bigger.

Comment by Matthew Wester on January 31, 2012 at 9:40am

The 3000 - 5000 seat symphony Halls and old vaudeville theaters that they are playing on this tour are, thankfully, not arenas and certainly not stadiums, but yeah, they have a solid fanbase that is probably slowly growing and will not be going away anytime soon! 


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.