I’ve lived in Santa Fe long enough now that I believe it may be possible to gauge how great a concert will be by which mix of people turn out and what kind of mood they’re in. You may poo-poo this as pseudo-science at best, but a large part of Santa Fe thrives on such things, so I’m rolling with it. The anticipation for Wilco’s return to The City Different was so thick it almost had its own aroma. I wondered how many from this nearly sold-out crowd had actually been to Wilco’s last Santa Fe show (c. 1995-1996 on the “A.M.” tour), or even knew who Wilco was at that time.
I had arrived with my own set of expectations, having seen them last in Albuquerque on the “Sky Blue Sky” tour. As I mulled over the minimal-ish used-briefs-as-jellyfish stage set, I anticipated a low-tech, lo-fi affair based around well-crafted electric folk songs, with occasional feedback. It took about half a dozen songs for Tweedy and company to find their groove and crush my expectations to dust.
Firstly, the way the lighting designer played off of and within the blobs hanging from the rig was very psychedelic and reminded me of the late Lowell George’s description of his musical ideal as a “cracked mosaic,” which fits just about every incarnation of Wilco’s output I can think of.
“Art of Almost,” the noisiest track on their new, mostly subdued disc, came early in the set and presaged what this incarnation of Wilco was going to be about. On the one hand, it seemed an acid test for the acoustics of the venue (which are excellent); on the other, it heralded this as a band that planned to rock our socks off.
By the time their YHF classic “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” came into play, it was clear this was no longer the alt.country Wilco of years past, but a wall of sound to be reckoned with, monumental on the scale of Mt. Rushmore. We planted our feet and stood our ground as alternating waves of signal and noise lashed us like gale force winds.
Bandleader Jeff Tweedy slowly came out of his shell and tested our sense of humor: declaring the opera house’s moat fixture was obviously put in place to keep Wilco’s rock-crazed throngs at bay, and also voiced his straight-faced opinion that all opera houses should have their ushers wear ponchos (as ours did). Ascertaining by our reactions they were among friendlies, Wilco threw the show into high gear.
Pleasant ditties like “Sunken Treasure,” dating back to their 2nd album, or newer fare like “Black Moon” and “Born Alone” were mutants on steroids compared to their studio versions. Maybe they had just grown to fill the space, but they sounded more like Crazy Horse-esque arena rock than I thought Wilco ever would.
“Handshake Drugs,” as catchy and likely to make an appearance on a Wilco set list as anything from the past few years – and it was a delightful read – had to take a back seat to another “Ghost Is Born” favorite: “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” appearing almost in disguise, its arrangement having been re-tooled severely. The quiet parts were so, so quiet it was like hearing it underwater. The crunchy parts were made all the more delightfully brutal in comparison. Almost no band displays this kind of dynamic range anymore.
My personal favorite “Blue Sky” track, “Impossible Germany,” came along after “Spiders.” I didn’t expect that one to show up at all. It was like bumping shoulders with a long-lost friend on the street, and realizing they looked a thousand times better than you’d have expected them to, and insisting you both duck into the nearest bar for an afternoon of drinks and nostalgia, basking in each other’s dazzling brilliance.
The set closer was a blistering, anthemic read of “Shot in the Arm,” from “Summerteeth.” Before tonight, I never would’ve thought to describe Wilco as an anthemic band, but it seems that’s what they’ve become. Or, maybe it was just what they could feel we wanted.
Had they stopped there I would’ve been satiated, but the 8 encores which followed were an absolute blitzkrieg, making the night the musical equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast. I went home engorged, stunned, smiling, and ready for a nap.
photo credit: Holly Sharpe-Moore via facebook
Here's the official setlist from WilcoWorld