By Kathryn Pinto
On the last swing through the US in support of The Whole Love, Wilco played more than two hours at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night. Jeff Tweedy took the stage looking like someone who'd been rolled out of a freight car by dustbowl era railroad bulls, and Nels Cline, incongruously slim and dressed in all black played a double neck guitar as the band launched into "Dawned on Me.” With a catalog spanning eight albums, Wilco is the rare band with a catalog of songs so deep that they can play an excellent set of more than two dozen songs and still leave every fan longing to hear something unplayed. Fans have made deep connections to this music over the last 17 years--a song on a cassette mix tape on a long gone car, tracks they’ve been listening to for years. There were people in the crowd who’d been smoking since weed was illegal and cigarettes were still legal. Judging by their rapt attention, a solid half of the audience was serious, serious fans who knew all the words to every song and came out for no other reason than to see this band. The other half were their dates.
Drawing on seven album studio albums, Wilco put together a set much the way one might sequence an album, including the audience as an element of the arrangement, pacing the setlist as key to the performance as the execution of the songs themselves. Moving forward and backward in time, starting with upbeat numbers "Dawned on Me" and “War on War" then building to crescendos of Glen Kotche's explosive drumming, then Tweedy quieting everything down, luring in the audience to the line "Music is my savior" to wild applause on “Sunken Treasure.” On "Impossible Germany" it was Nels Cline on a guitar so paintworn that it could have belonged to one of the Siara brothers, who had the audience hanging on every note. On this warm Indian summer night with a breeze blowing across the Bowl, you could look out and think "This is the best band in the world and they’re finally playing on a stage big enough for them."
The Hollywood Bowl is a communal concert experience, an event, but it’s also a place where you don’t have to be cool, you just have to like a picnic: a really nice bottle of wine, or flask of bourbon and some quality beef jerky. The trade off is losing the intimacy of a smaller club like the Troubadour (or even a theater like the El Rey). "Misunderstood" began understated, and then built and built. In a smaller venue the whole crowd would be on its feet singing every word. There were moments that gave glimpses into that experience. In “The Whole Love” when Tweedy smiled between lines and Kotche was drenched and dripping in sweat; anyone (looking at the video screens) could see how much they inhabited the music.
Introducing "Jesus, etc." Tweedy alluded to the Hollywood Bowl as home to Sing Along with the Sound of Music, inviting fans to "Sing Along with the Sound of Wilco." The performance ebbed and flowed from intense to laid back rambling over the course of the evening. There were points like "Shot in the Arm" or "Heavy Metal Drummer" when the audience reacted so enthusiastically that it seemed they had all stopped listening to new music in 1999 (or maybe 2001). In the first encore "Ashes of American Flags" had the audience on their feet. Wilco as they showed Sunday night, has charisma in spades. At the Bowl, the sound washes over you. What is lost in sight lines, or physically getting up close to the stage is made up for by the chance to have so many people all enjoying your same favorite songs.
Of opener Joanna Newsom, Tweedy said. "That's hard, that’s harder than what we do." Newsom is a small birdlike creature playing a harp of architectural scale, plucking the strings with deceptive toughness. As she played, the California Bear Republic flag beside the stage slowly lilted and unfurled as if breeze and banner were choreographed to the music. Hers is the kind of music that inspires devoted fans or an equally negative reaction. But even for those who are not devotees, Newsom’s performance Sunday, as a three-piece backed by Ryan Francesconi and Neal Morgan, displayed an undeniable mastery of her craft. Both physically and in her vocals, she is an ethereal beauty of strength and compelling charm.
Wilco Set List:
Dawned on Me
War on War
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
Hate it Here
Box Full of Letters
Shot In the Arm
Ashes of American Flags
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You