Wilco at the State Theatre, 12/6/11

December 6, 2011
State Theatre, Minneapolis

At their best, Wilco have always effectively straddled the line between dour art-rock and party-starting power pop. The trio of landmark albums making up their "classic" period -- 1996's Being There, 1999's Summer Teeth and 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- fused classic-rock with eccentric textures in a manner rarely heard before or since. I had admittedly fallen somewhat out of love with the band that had once been my musical lodestar in the wake of their parting ways with multi-instrumentalist/producer Jay Bennett and a series of diminishing returns albums that either overly emphasized their prickly inscrutable side (2004's A Ghost is Born), or offered up pandering polite folk-pop (2009's Wilco The Album). Having written Wilco off as a band of contented elder statesmen ready to rest on their laurels as they entered late middle age, this year's The Whole Love caught me wholly by surprise. It's easily the best thing they've done since Foxtrot, showcasing a band once again eager to take chances and push boundaries.

If Wilco's set list last night at the State Theater is any indication, perhaps they agree with my summation of their catalog. The band's wide-ranging 130 minute set featured just three songs total from its prior two albums, wisely focusing instead on the strongest tracks from

The Whole Love

("One Sunday Morning," "It Dawned on Me") alongside their enviably deep back catalog ("I Got You," "Misunderstood," She's a Jar" and "Poor Places" to name just a few). Rather than feeling like an exercise in nostalgia, however, the sextet's revisiting of past material came off as revelatory. Perhaps because half of the members of Wilco's current incarnation (multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and guitarist Nels Ciine) weren't around at the time those songs were originally written and recorded. While it undoubtedly took some time for this version of WIlco to gel, they are now are firing on all cylinders. 

The strengths of this particular Wilco incarnation were made abundantly clear all night. Frontman Jeff Tweedy's voice is in the finest fettle of his career, and after a brief ill-advised dalliance at playing the role of guitar hero immediately following Bennett's departure, he's now enlisted two skilled axe men to support him. While the guitar harmonies and ecstatic unconventional lead break freakouts of Nels Cline tended to garner the whoops and claps from the crowd, Pat Sansone's work on the six-string proved equally sterling, providing buttery smooth fills on the verses of "Impossible Germany" and a fittingly raw and loose lead work on "Box Full of Letters."

Likewise, the rhythm section of drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist John Stirratt distinguished itself, with Stiratt's close harmonies on Summerteeth-era classics "She's a Jar" and "I'm Always in Love" sending chills up the spine and Kotche's ever-kinetic presence keeping the crowd engaged and on edge for the entirety of epic rhythm-driven numbers like "Art of Almost."

Clad in a funky fedora and blue/black plaid suit coat, Tweedy rarely spoke, but was clearly happy to be back in a town that's worshipped at his feet long before Wilco tours routinely sold out around the globe. He gave props to the reverent crowd for standing the entirety of their set and referred to Minneapolis as the band's "home away from home." As killer new tracks from the band's latest like "I Might" made clear in the live setting, Wilco has once again found sure footing by embracing chaos and spiking sugary-sweet melodies with blasts of serrated edge guitar work and complex and conflicted lyricism.

Critic's Bias: Wilco's Being There was my melodic gateway drug to an entire world of alternative music as a 15-year-old suburbanite. No band mattered to me more from 1996 to 2002.
The Crowd: A mix of NPR-loving oldsters for whom Wilco is one of a few shows on the yearly concert calendar and fresh-faced youngsters. In other words, those who have their act together enough to log on to tickemaster and buy tickets the moment they go on sale.
Overheard in the crowd: "I can't leave shows early anymore, I once left a Lenny Kravtiz show early and Prince came out during the encore!"
Random notebook dump: Nick Lowe put on a stirring opening set performed solo acoustically. Highlights include a cover of longtime friend and collaborator Elvis Costello's "Allison" and "All Men Are Liars" a witty send-up of male sentimentality that effectively mocked '80s-one-hit-wonder-turned-internet meme Rick Astley.
Set Length: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with two encores

Set List (via WilcoWorld):
01 - One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)
02 - Poor Places
03 - Art of Almost
04 - I Might
05 - Muzzle Of Bees
06 - Misunderstood
07 - Bull Black Nova
08 - Black Moon
09 - Impossible Germany
10 - Sky Blue Sky
11 - Box Full of Letters
12 - Born Alone
13 - She's a Jar
14 - Pot Kettle Black
15 - Handshake Drugs
16 - Dawned On Me
17 - I'm Always In Love
18 - War On War
19 - Whole Love
20 - A Magazine Called Sunset
21 - Heavy Metal Drummer
22 - I'm the Man Who Loves You
23 - Passenger Side
24 - Red-Eyed and Blue
25 - I Got You (At the End of the Century)
26 - Outtasite (Outta Mind)
27 - Cruel to Be Kind (Nick Lowe)

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