For close to two hours, Wilco sonically mesmerized the extremely diverse crowd of fans whose ages ranged from their late teens to 20s, 30s, and 40-somethings (I was seated next to that man who hawks hot dogs at Yankee Stadium for a living).
Wilco, whose named is derived from a combination of the saying “willing to comply,” formed in 1994 after the break up of alt-country group Uncle Tupelo. Wilco is a band of six with only two original members, lead singer Jeff Tweedy and bassist Jeff Stirratt, who have remained since the group’s inception. The band’s 25-song set drew largely from their latest release, 2011’s “The Whole Love.” The album is nominated for a 2012 Grammy for best rock album alongside Jeff Beck, Kings of Leon, Red Hot Chili Peppers and music’s most straightforward teeth-gnashing rock band Foo Fighters. A win (to be determined at the Feb. 12 ceremony at the Staples Center) would be the band’s third Grammy – impressive for a 17-year-old indie band with a nine-album catalogue.
Wilco played the Mondavi Center at U.C. Davis on Feb. 1 exhaling a strong hit of live music onto a capacity audience of 1,800 people. Wilco’s powerhouse live performance was perhaps as fascinating as it was hard to define. Opening with “One Sunday Morning” made me instantly think I had the band’s musical mystique figured out – Tweedy is a heterogeneous mix of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Wrong! Wilco’s music is stylistically as diverse as any band out there with its strong, enlightened lyrics set to countless musical genres including country, ‘60s-era rock, jazz and even pop.
The bell intro to “I’m Trying To Break Your Heart” from their most commercially popular album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is a perfect example of Wilco’s rock experimentalism. Performed live, it was awe-inspiring. The pedigree of Wilco’s musicianship really puts them into a category of their own. Performing “Side With The Seeds” and “Dawned On Me” as rear projectors blasted the stage with a multi-colored, hypnotic light show lent a visual credence to the abnormally stationary band.
Tweedy’s stage presence is akin to a hipster wandering around back and forth aimlessly. He may not know where he is going but he certainly knows how to get you there. “We couldn’t pass up this acoustic environment to share our more intimate songs with you,” noted Tweedy mid-way through their set. The audience, appreciative of Tweedy’s well-crafted slower songs, was brought to its feet during the night’s up-tempo final 45 minutes, highlighted by “Standing O.” “This is going to feel silly playing this (“Standing O”) song for a bunch of people sitting down,” Tweedy coyly suggested.
The audience obeyed, remaining on their feet throughout the remainder of the show. For all the textured layers and abrupt transitions, Wilco is a quintessential jam band with their aggressive interludes only further inciting the syncopated movement of the eager crowd. Watching guitarist Nels Cline mashing guitar strings and ending songs by strumming fervently as he navigated down to the bottom of the fret board was truly a treat.
Wilco ended the evening with a five-song encore anchored by “Whole Love” and “I’m A Wheel” before finally unleashing the satisfied audience back out into the UC Davis Arboretum. “This is our first time in this city so thank you for having us,” said Tweedy as he lifted off his hat in acknowledgment of the explosive applause and cheers that for two hours had emanated from the Mondavi Center.
Openers White Denim were a perfect appetizer for the evening’s main course of Tweedy and Co. The 6-year-old band from Austin, Texas played their brand of bluesy-rock tinged with a hint of punk to a half-filled venue (Wilco fans weren’t about to sacrifice a chance to enjoy a martini as they mingled in the arboretum). Denim’s lead singer James Petralli, a dead-ringer for Rivers Cuomo, helmed the quartet of talented musicians who were about as dialed-in as musicians can get as they breezed through a 30-minute set. Petralli’s use of his microphone as a distinct instrument (as opposed to just a voice amplification device) combined with his terse vocals was unbelievable and is a formidable reason to add Denim to the list of bands on the verge.
Should Wilco return to Sacramento anytime in the future and I’m given the option to once again be offered the chance to be in attendance – consider me “willing to comply.”
Stand-out songs: “I Might,” “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “On and On and On,” “Dawned On Me” and “A Shot In The Arm.”
My final verdict: Loved it? Loathed it? Missed the Mark? – Loved it!