Angst-fueled dad-rock and graying and receding hairlines was the path Wilco appeared to be forging circa 2007. The soft, but beautiful, Sky Blue Sky, had just made its way onto alternative playlists (or VW ads) and presented itself as a comfortable—read: traditional—harmonic palate, suitable for pushing strollers and reading bedtime stories. This infuriated many Wilco die-hards as they were accustomed to the unpredictable, albeit jarring, soundscapes the band had penned on their previous landmark albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. The album appeared an even greater compromise towards complacency as it failed to unleash the masterful avant-garde sounds of their newest guitarist Nels Cline. “Impossible Germany” came closest to realizing Cline’s capabilities when paired against Jeff Tweedy’s dueling guitar, yet it too was mollified. In a live context songs like “Shake It Off” and “Hate It Here” became the album’s flagship contributions, but neither provoked awe nor confounding curiosity in ways Wilco was capable of.
So it was with a welcome sigh of relief that the faithful congregated at Coney Island’s Keyspan Park. Wilco was both retreating and progressing in form via their latest, and self-titled, release, Wilco (The Album), and its supporting tour. Returning to their grittier guitar-driven rock they pushed the limits of the audiences’ own acoustic comfort. The packed minor-league stadium was quickly singing along to the opening, and self-titled, song, “Wilco (The Song)”. Though the album was officially released just two weeks prior, it had been streaming, free, on the band’s website for weeks. (The album’s motif, Wilco (The Parentheses), also appeared on assorted merchandise like, Wilco (The Tote).) As Jeff Tweedy sang offers of musical consolations (“A sonic shoulder for you to cry on / Wilco will love you baby”) Cline’s long whining guitar lines established a coarse guitar sound that began earlier in the evening with openers Yo La Tengo. But whereas Yo La Tengo’s sound grew into densely distorted layers of guitar, particularly on their epic finale “The Story of Yo La Tango”, Wilco’s was protean, adding texture to an easy opener like, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, or rising and falling in cathartic cycles, like on the mammoth “Misunderstood”.
As the group’s preeminent guitarist, Nels Cline is best appreciated live. Though typically playing augmented sounds through various effects and churning out massive solos drenched with distortion, Cline got all Van Halen on “Handshake Drugs” with some tapping fills. He was continually challenged, however, in his guitar supremacy. Jeff Tweedy matched Cline’s exuberance for running around the guitar-neck during “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, even sticking out his leg at an incline to mock some of Nels’ idiosyncratic gestures. Later, during the encore, Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone traded blazing rock solos until finally Sansone outdid him with a sweeping strumming arc that sent his guitar pick flying into the first row.
Since the two-hour set was heavy on Wilco’s louder repertory, drummer Glenn Kotche was unable to show-off his incredibly refined touch. But louder numbers, like “I’m The Man Who Loves You” and encore “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, featuring Yo La Tengo, felt cathartic, juxtaposing echoing space with pummeling beats. Keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen, remaining a sturdy backdrop behind Tweedy and Cline’s various guitar lines, only briefly got the spotlight on “Hate It Here”, pulling out a bluesy solo and interlude jam. Providing backup vocals to Tweedy all-night was fellow founding member, and bassist, John Stirratt. His simple but alluring bass lines always balanced Cline’s progressively atonal solos, especially on the rousing, “Bull Black Nova”.
The spotlight inevitably fell on Tweedy, however. Singing lead he sounded particularly strong, his presence blithe throughout the night. Promoting the necessity of a program (for sale at the merch table), mocking song-requests by designating a crowd spokesperson, and feigning dramatic singing poses silently he flaunted his anti-rockstar sensibilities. His charm even extended to the T-shirt tossing mascots who entertained during the brief pause between Wilco’s set and first encore. The latter featured backup vocals by both Feist and Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear and the resulting harmonies on “California Stars” were stunning. An extended version of “Misunderstood” culminated in the band emphatically hitting the words “nothing” for over a minute, shaking the stadium like canon fire. After inviting Yo La Tengo onstage for an even longer version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, with Tweedy directing the audience in handclaps, the band came back onstage for another encore saying, “When will we be back?” They quickly ran through “The Late Greats” before finally paying homage to the proximity of Mermaid Ave with “Hoodoo Voodoo”. It was a fitting ending to an amazing show.