Wilco: February 5, 2012 at the Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, BC
When it comes to Wilco, I think my impartiality is suspect. Calling me a fan doesn’t seem quite enough, though by the standards of the truly obsessed I am at best a rank amateur. I came to the band fairly late, with the Mermaid Avenue sessions serving as my introduction. It was Billy Bragg who brought me to Wilco, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the first album I bought by the band.
I’ve more than made up for my latecomer status with enthusiasm, so given this self declared fan status what’s the point of a review? Am I just going to heap praise on the band regardless of what they play? Maybe, but let’s just give this a shot why don’t we. I might enlist the help of a couple of friends.
I’ve seen the band four times, but this is the first time I’ve seen them indoors. They’ve been playing a lot of these beautiful old 3,000-ish seat theatres on this tour and they’re good venues for the music. It’s been almost two years to the day since the band last visited town: that last show was an outdoor show that kicked off the 2010 Winter Olympics and though it was a great show the venue–built to hold huge crowds–seemed to swallow the band a bit. The Chad Kroeger (of Nickelback) selected band earlier on that evening didn’t help either.
Much has been made of the depth of the band’s set list on this tour: what’s most interesting to me is how varied they’ve been from night to night. While most bands of this size playing relatively fixed shows from city to city, Wilco’s been playing it a bit loose. This led to a little Twitter anticipation earlier in the day about opening number choices.
The band took the stage promptly at nine and quickly got to work as the opening strains of One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend) wafted gently into the seats. Followed quickly by Poor Places any impression that this was going to be a quiet show was promptly kicked to the curb with a rousing live rendition of Art of Almost.
“We have a fair amount of business to attend to,” Jeff Tweedy finally said into the microphone. “Sorry for not saying Hi sooner. thanks for clapping.” In a town known for a bit of a slacker aesthetic, this kind of protestant work ethic was delightfully out of place. Back to work it was for a set that started heavy with favourites from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the grossly underrated Sky Blue Sky. Impossible Germany gave Nels a chance to stretch his wings a bit with a short guitar solo. The level of respect Tweedy has for Cline was obvious as he stood watching from the middle of the stage.
My companion for the show hadn’t seen Wilco live before and the sheer look of glee on her face was as good an indication of how the show was going so far as anything else. It probably didn’t hurt that we were three rows back and immediately in front of Cline. It’s an impressive thing to watch him work, even if the “Guitar God” label he’s been assigned seems a bit hyperbolic.
One of the night’s most interesting musical moments came in another quiet moment with a gorgeous downtempo rendition of Spiders (Kidsmoke.) I’d assigned some pre-concert homework listening to my companion and this one threw her for a bit of a loop, sounding dramatically different than the version on the band’s Kicking Television double live album.
Tweedy addressed the crowd again. “Because I’m psychic, let me guess…is your name Mikaela?” he said, pointing down into the front row. “Are you getting married?” Well played Jeff. I’m not sure who tipped you off on that one, but it was a pretty nice moment in a good show. The follow up was even better, with a random gesture towards the crowd “…and you just lost a pet!” It was obvious that Tweedy was in a cheerful mood. Handshake Drugs was next, because nothing quite says congratulations on getting married like a song about…drugs?
The current Wilco lineup is the longest lived lineup the band’s had: there haven’t been any changes in three albums, and it shows. The band was in fine form and proceeded to play out a set list with a good balance of material from Summerteeth onwards, even dipping back to the A.M days for I Must be High, a song Tweedy said the band hadn’t played in town for at least 15 years. This visits into the past have been a highlight of shows on this tour but they’re not new: two years ago a version of It’s Just That Simple from the same album was being played live on the Ashes of American Flags tour. This is a band that’s not afraid to revisit its history when it can.
A single lengthy encore showed that even more clearly, closing with a threesome of tunes from Being There. Red Eyed & Blue, I Got You (At the End of the Century) and Outtasite (Outta Mind) had an on its feet audience fully engaged to the last minute. For my money, the “I got you and it’s all I need” refrain of I Got You makes it one of the best show closers in the band’s arsenal.
So how does this gig compare? It’s probably the best set list I’ve heard the band play. I liked its diversity and range, and the reworked versions of classic songs were a nice touch. The band’s playing was phenomenal, but that’s never a surprise to be honest. I have a preference for music outdoors on warm summer nights whenever I have a choice, so from that perspective the Oregon gig I went to three years ago can’t be touched but those are rare occasions.
It might be best to check in with those friends on this one so let’s do that. My seat neighbour–whose taste in music is arguably better and more diverse than mine–left the show and almost used the word best to describe it. Why almost? Well, she was at the Harvest Picnic with me you see and if you’re going to look for a combination of beat this band Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and friends offer a pretty tempting argument. I’m willing to bet she’s catching up on that homework she neglected earlier though, and she’s going to laugh a bit less when I tell her something is my “favourite Wilco song” which I seem to do with some regularity. (For the record, if I have to pick one…just one…it’s probably Poor Places.)
Another friend who, when I gave her a copy of The Whole Love told me the Art of Almost did nothing for her texted me right after the show and it was with quite a bit of glee that I was able to write back with three words.
“Told you so.”
There’s a reason Wilco have been called the best touring band in America right now and last night they demonstrated pretty clearly that they can cross a border and hold up pretty well too. If they’re not back soon, it’s likely that my next vacation is going to happen via Chicago.
“One Sunday Morning”
“Art Of Almost”
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”
“I Must Be High”
“Pot Kettle Black”
“Dawned On Me”
“A Shot in the Arm”
“Heavy Metal Drummer”
“Red-Eyed and Blue”
“I Got You (At The End of the Century)”
“Outtasite (Outta Mind)”