Wilco Taps into Creative Setlist with ‘Schmilco’ Songs, Rarities, Fan Favorites
About halfway through Wilco’s set at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland on Sunday, Jeff Tweedy quipped that the band’s show would be followed by a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was a reference to Wilco’s stage setup, a bucolic layering of trees enveloping the band backed by an array of clouds and sunset-esque colors. The Portland show was just a few dates into Wilco’s West Coast jaunt supporting Schmilco, their new album that is coming out this week. Compared to the more frenetic rock of their last album Star Wars, the band’s latest effort is stripped down and more acoustic with some of Jeff Tweedy’s most heartfelt, personal songs to date, even if those songs happen to be “joyously negative” as Tweedy himself has said.
The foliage of the backdrop gave the stage a woodsy, campfire gathering feel, which lent itself to the more intimate experience Wilco is clearly aiming for on this tour. This was obvious right from the first song “Normal American Kids”, a new one from Schmilco that found only Tweedy and guitarist Nels Cline taking the stage to play it. As the rest of the band gradually took the stage, Tweedy led them through two more new tracks with the catchy folk of “If I Ever Was A Child” and hushed shuffle of “Cry All Day”. By the end of the night the band would play seven out of the twelve new songs, proving to the audience that they fit right in alongside staples like “The Joke Explained”, “Should’ve Been In Love” (a most excellent version played soft and acoustic), and “Hummingbird”. This marked a different approach than the band took for Star Wars where they started each show of the tour with a full track-by-track performance of the album.
New songs aside, there was another takeaway from the Portland show: Jeff Tweedy has little tolerance for audience disrespect, and when he gets pissed it actually can have a positive effect on the music. Shortly after a revelatory performance of “Impossible Germany” that saw Nels Cline unleashing a flow of intensity through his guitar solo that stretched on longer and hit a higher peak than the setlist staple often does, Tweedy confronted a front row audience member about his cell phone use. Sharply addressing the offender with his dry wit, Tweedy pointed out that he as a human being was given less respect than a movie. It was refreshing to see an artist address this frequent concert problem so directly, and Tweedy continued to do so throughout the rest of the night. By the end of the show he reached a tipping point following “I’m Always In Love” when he grabbed the cell phone and tossed it into the mess of equipment behind him. He followed it up by throwing his guitar, showing that this time the cell phone assholes had hit a nerve, but at least justice was served. This was feisty Tweedy, who also riffed on a fan who yelled out the dreaded “Freebird” request (“collision of first beer and first concert”), and joked about his penis singing the 4th harmony. Yes, even dad rock has its bad boys.
While these interactions were entertaining, the real magic was seeing a thought-out setlist with songs like “Hesitating Beauty” and “Christ For President” off the Billy Bragg & Wilco release Mermaid Avenue, live rarity “Cars Can’t Escape”, and a joyful acoustic rendition of the Uncle Tupelo classic “We’ve Been Had” that shined with slide guitar and banjo. The best tune may have come during “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, which was easily the most dialed in moment of the night and also featured the most jamming. Pat Sansone’s mallet percussion added an eerie, playful accent to the song while Tweedy seemed to be taking out his anger towards the cell phone user on a jagged, electrifying guitar solo.
Coming in at a hair over two hours, Wilco’s set in Portland was loaded with surprises, fan favorites, and new songs that immediately fit in with the band’s catalogue. The stage setup, creative setlist, and quieter, acoustic approach marked a departure from the band’s summer sets at outdoor venues, and showed that Wilco is in no way slowing down.