“We understand the days of the week,” said Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, midway through Sunday night’s epic set, the second in a two night stand at the Ryman Auditorium. He was explaining why the band was playing some of their softer songs. “We know you have to work tomorrow,” said the purported ring leader of the Dad Rock scene. “You should have seen Saturday night,” he said, alluding to a rowdy show, where the smell of drunken vomit hung in the air. “They were insane. There was a woman asleep with her chin on the stage. There was one guy draped over the side of the balcony, like a Halloween mannequin.”
But Wilco wasn’t taking it easy on anybody. They opened with “Less Than You Think,” a strange and brilliant choice. On A Ghost Is Born, the headache ballad is sheer white noise for 10-plus minutes, proceeded by a lovely bit of melody. It represents the band at their most experimental and obtuse. Tonight, they didn’t play the full Monty, but we did get a nice, ear-rattling wall of sound that set the mood for the rest of the evening.
At a Wilco show, each tune sets up the next one, and they don’t so much play the songs as they do build soundscapes for each song to exist in. It’s this ability to create sonic worlds within worlds that defines their new album, The Whole Love. There are echoes of all the band’s albums in songs like “One Sunday Morning” and “I Might,” from the depressive chamber pop of Summerteeth to the folksy resolve of the Mermaid Avenue sessions. But the level of alchemy created by the now-solidified cast of musicians (Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche, Pat Sansone, and Mikael Jorgensen, along with longtime bassist John Stirratt) has reached a heady and undeniable peak. While the latest crop of songs are not as directly affecting, a byproduct of Tweedy’s impressionistic, fractured lyrics, they are multi-layered beasts that command respect from anyone who appreciates fine musicianship and the surrealistic poetry of dreams.
Avant-garde guitar wizard Nels Cline is responsible for a large part of the band’s newfound, jazzbo-like appeal. Like an indie rock version of Jerry Garcia, he left the audience hanging on every idiosyncratic flight of fancy, whether it was the country and western inflections he added to “One Sunday Morning,” or the climactic freak out of “Side With The Seeds.” If the language of guitar solos is British or American, Cline seems to be speaking in Chinese.
Cline was also wielding a secret weapon; the 1957 Goldtop Les Paul electric guitar that Duane Allman performed “Layla” and other assorted guitar solos on, on loan from the Allman Brothers Band Museum in Atlanta. Tweedy said it was akin to wielding Noah’s hammer that he built the Ark with. Speaking of legends, the band was joined by one of their heroes in opening act Nick Lowe, the British troubadour who wrote “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” among other accomplishments. “We want him to join the band,” joked Tweedy. Together they peeled off affable, pub-rock versions of Lowe’s “36 Inches High” and “I Love My Label.” Wilco recently released a cover of the latter in celebration of their newfound independence from the major (and minor) label system, and the creation of their own company (in their back), dBpm Records.
The night ended with a blast of vintage Wilco –- “Red-Eyed And Blue” and “I Got You.” It was a nice nod to the past from a band who continue to borrow from the future.