The venerable Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, New Jersey, began life as a legitimate theatre in 1922 before being converted to a movie theatre in 1929. The venue fell on hard times in recent years, was shuttered in 2006, and found new life as a concert hall in 2008. Last week, alt-Americana icons Wilco rode into Montclair for a sold out two-night stand at the Wellmont, and the old place will never be the same.
In the event you think of Wilco as a bunch of guys strumming acoustic guitars out on the back porch on a sleepy afternoon, think again. They can do that, as the acoustic set that came in the middle of their show clearly proved, but for most of the night they were a rock and roll juggernaut that can move from one genre to another without missing a beat. The one constant amid all this style-shifting is the superb songwriting of frontman Jeff Tweedy.
The evening began with the devastating one-two punch of “Wilco (the song),” which served as a clever way to introduce the band, followed by the immensely powerful “Bull Black Nova.” Both songs are from the band’s latest, last year’s Wilco (the album). Several songs that followed, including “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” and “Via Chicago,” featured what I call chaos. This chaos is the band simply going off. Think of the end of “A Day In the Life” but even more so. The effect is hypnotic, and cool, and really loud. After about an hour and fifteen minutes, amidst another occasion of chaos, the road crew cleverly changed the set over to create something of a living room atmosphere, and when the sound and fury ended, Wilco was in place for their acoustic set. That part of the show lasted about forty minutes, and included “More Than the Moon,” and “Passenger Side.” Then, with the set changed back, the band took on some fan favorites. “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and “Hummingbird” were among the gems that were heard in the later stages of the evening. The entire show lasted just over three non-stop hours.
The undisputed centerpiece of the show is “Impossible Germany,” which first appeared on Wilco’s 2007 album Sky Blue Sky. If you’re like me, there have been a precious few times in your concert-going life when the intensity of the music, the majesty of rock and roll, caused you to well up with tears. This was one such occasion for me. The power of Cline’s solo and the band’s sympathetic response were simply stunning. Among the many other highlights, “You Never Know,” from Wilco (the album), and “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(Again)” from the 1999 album Summerteeth proved that Wilco can power pop with the best of them.
It is simply impossible for me to write about a Wilco show without writing about Nels Cline. As I’ve said before, and nothing that I saw at the show did anything to change my opinion, Nels Cline is the most innovative rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. Case closed. It’s not just shredding, and it’s not just his sheer speed on the fretboard. It’s the content. It’s what he plays as much as how he plays it. He dispenses with rock cliches, and creates a whole new vocabulary for his instrument. That is what the great ones do. He is something of a whirling dervish onstage too, leaping and bounding around his corner of the stage, then hurling his guitar toward his amplifier to get more feedback going. He is really Wilco’s most arresting audio and visual element.
If all of this wasn’t enough to endear Wilco to me, the two covers that they played more than did the job. A month or so ago the band played the Buffalo Springfield’s “Broken Arrow” at the MusicCares dinner that honored Neil Young. I’ve been trying to find video of the performance without success, so I was thrilled to hear them do a wonderfully faithful version of the song toward the end of the show. The very last song before the encore was Big Star’s “Thank You Friends.” If you’ve been reading Popdose, you know that a number of us were brokenhearted when Alex Chilton died, and Wilco was often mentioned as a band that was influenced by Alex in the obituaries that followed his death. Hearing them pay tribute was moving, exhilarating, and perfectly fitting.
Wilco does not sound like anyone else. Aside from Nels Cline, they’re not much to look at. There is little jumping around, and no striking of rock star poses. There is not much in the way of between song patter, other than a few wry comments from Tweedy. They don’t have any hit singles to promote. What they do have is an amazing level of musical chemistry, and the confidence in each other to go with it.
“Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you baby.” Indeed.
The Set List
“The Price Is Right” theme song as the band comes onstage
Wilco (the song)
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Company In My Back
Side With The Seeds
Pot Kettle Black
More Like The Moon
Forget The Flowers
Someday, Some Morning, Sometime
War On War
Acoustic Set ends
Airline To Heaven
A Shot in the Arm
Jesus, etc. (crowd singalong)
You Never Know
Heavy Metal Drummer
Red-Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At The End of the Century)
Broken Arrow (Buffalo Springfield)
Hate It Here
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Thank You Friends (Big Star)
The Late Greats
I’m A Wheel
Photo by George Kopp. Please visit his website to see more of his fine work.