Live Review: Wilco, Wilmington, DE, Aug. 10, 2008

“We’ve now played 48 out of 50 states,” Jeff Tweedy proudly announced to the sold-out crowd at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. “We’ll hit 49 next week,” he continued, alluding to Wilco’s headlining slot at the Jackson Hole Festival in Wyoming. Earlier this year, Tweedy and Co. announced plans to perform in cities and states otherwise ignored over the course of Wilco’s 14-year career. In addition to wowing newer fans at mega-fests such as Lollapalooza or Baltimore’s Virgin Mobile Festival, Wilco’s summer tour took it to the geographic edges of its U.S. fanbase, with dates in Montana, New Mexico, Alaska and North Dakota. The band’s performance in the historic Delaware auditorium spanned their celebrated nine-album catalog (save a curious absence of anything from 1999’s Summerteeth).

A Dylan-channeling version of “Sunken Treasure” kicked off the night while Tweedy’s blows on a neck-strap harmonica drew wild hoots and whistles from the mostly older audience. The gradual pace continued through the noise-infused interludes of “Wishful Thinking” and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” until Glen Kotche’s unyielding cymbal attack and full-body flailing outshone the iconic lead singer. Kotche’s drumming remained tight throughout the evening, as did the work of bassist John Stirratt, the band’s only original member besides Tweedy. The Wilco line-up has shuffled through 12 members since its 1994 inception following the break-up of Tweedy’s alt-country trailblazers Uncle Tupelo. The recent addition of multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and acclaimed jazz guitarist Nels Cline continues to flesh out the band’s earlier work into lush, layered compositions, particularly in a live setting.

Additional support for this performance came by way of the Total Pros, a three-piece horn section that sat in for six songs, including “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, “The Late Greats” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” The extra instrumentation, while fluid and precise, often led to an oversaturated sound and confirmed what many critics have argued since the lukewarm reception of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky: late-period Wilco is upon us. Many moments of the band’s 24-song set felt politely jammy, and Tweedy stumbled through select rarities such as “Casino Queen,” “Blood Of The Lamb” (a Woody Guthrie cover from the band’s collaboration with Billy Bragg), and “Hotel Arizona,” which needed three re-starts before getting off the ground. Aside from these slips, the neo-jazz breakdown of “You Are My Face” and vapor-trail ending of “Handshake Drugs” both allowed Cline to stretch his wings. Cline’s handiwork routinely transcended his Fender Jazzmaster to include intricate toggling on a side table of effects and soulful slide-guitar fingering to dress up such songs as “Poor Places” and “Walken,” the latter an otherwise forgettable cut from Sky Blue Sky.

It was clear that an unspoken dialogue was at the heart of Wilco’s first interaction with their First State fans. The bouncy, transcendental anthem “Hummingbird” was a full-fledged sing-along, and “Theologians” felt especially drenched in enigmatic mysticism when cryptic lyrics echoed from fans around the horseshoe theatre. “You can rely on me, honey,” Tweedy assured the swaying crowd during the twangy Southwestern waltz of “Jesus, Etc.” Turning his microphone toward the audience, they echoed back, “Our love is all we have. Our love is all of God’s money. Everyone is a burning sun.”

—John Hendrickson