Concert Review: Wilco aim to please and surprise their fans as they celebrate 20 years

Wilco at Taft TheatreLast Tuesday Wilco showed a nearly sold-out crowd at Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio that celebrating 20 years as a revered and iconic band doesn’t mean patting themselves on the back while sleep-waling through the hits.

Instead, Wilco performed a unique one-night-only set of both well-known and obscure material, playing nearly nearly 30 songs in over 2 hours- even better, this happens every night.

Wilco played with all the intensity, precision and grace of a group that may have earned their status as one of the most important bands in rock today, but wants to make sure they deserve that status night after night.

Wilco’s performance in Cincinnati was the first time I had seen live in almost three years. Thanks to my faded memories of that excellent show, two official live albums, and the, of course, YouTube, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what a Wilco show was like – great songs (check), incredible musicianship (check), heavy doses of ambient/industrial noise that rolls in a like a storm cloud now and then (check), and several barn-burning Nels Cline guitar solos (check and double-check).

Following an impressive opening set from guitarist Steve Gunn, Wilco promptly hit the stage with this far-reaching collection of songs and styles, twisting and turning through mid-tempo rockers, slight slow and quiet numbers and then rave-ups that dissolved into guitar and synth ambient noise.Their set list ran the gamut from live staples, to obscure early works, from endearing Woody Guthrie songs (off their Guthrie tribute collection with Billy Bragg) to a new take on a couple of Wilco-family songs.

Throughout Wilco alternated between moving song-to-song and then chatting with the audience, as if they had both nothing and everything to prove at the same time. I thought for a moment that they must be very proud of what they’ve accomplished in 20 years, but what I really felt from all of the band members was that they were grateful for what they had, and wanted to share that appreciation with everyone who attended the show that night.

Maybe that’s why 2 hours later they led the audience in a hushed sing-a-longs of “War on War” and the beautiful “California Stars” during their second encore, a 5-song acoustic set.Wilco live May 5 2015

What’s even more impressive than their massive repertoire is that the band never lets up. Not once did they take a break go for a low-key number (I’m not sure they even took a sip of water). Wilco played every song like this was it, full of life and nothing to indicate what they would play next, unless you could get close enough to the stage to see one of the tiny tape down set-lists.

The show was also a guitar feast, of course. Both Tweedy and Klein change guitars after almost every song, not because they could, but because each one added its own unique personality to the song. Considering how carefully Wilco craft their recordings, hearing them reproduce them so faithfully was a thrill. I mean, Cline could just jam screwdrivers into his guitar and tweak hundreds of guitar pedals and I’d be pretty thrilled. Fortunately (for me at least) he did that and more, taking the songs into new territory with every adventurous solo and every subtle fill.

If you were a fan of Wilco and you haven’t seen them, or maybe you just haven’t seen them in a while, go and catch them as they celebrate 20 years of great music.

You can get the new Wilco rarities box set “Alpha Mike Foxtrot” box at most places including Amazon, and for those that don’t need everything, they’ve released a compilation CD entitled “What’s your 20? Essential Tracks” that is pretty spot-on.

Until Wilco gets back to their studios in Chicago to record new material, until they decide how they want to go out on the road after the 20th anniversary celebration, I will comb through the pictures and I took during the show, make sure I get the set list right, visit some of the forums to see what people’s thoughts were about the show, and probably be just a little jealous of whoever gets to hear side with the seats tomorrow night.

Set List, May 5, 2015:

  1. Less Than You Think
  2. Handshake Drugs
  3. Camera
  4. Hummingbird
  5. Panthers
  6. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
  7. Art of Almost
  8. Sunken Treasure
  9. Either Way
  10. Pot Kettle Black
  11. Secret of the Sea (Billy Bragg & Wilco cover)
  12. Heavy Metal Drummer
  13. Jesus, Etc.
  14. Born Alone
  15. Laminated Cat (Loose Fur cover)
  16. Airline to Heaven (Billy Bragg & Wilco cover)
  17. Box Full of Letters
  18. Dawned on Me
  19. Impossible Germany
  20. A Magazine Called Sunset
  21. Theologians
  22. I’m the Man Who Loves You

  1. Red-Eyed and Blue
  2. I Got You (At the End of the Century)
  3. Outtasite (Outta Mind)
    Encore 2:

  1. The Thanks I Get
  2. War on War
  3. New Madrid (Uncle Tupelo cover)
  4. California Stars (Billy Bragg & Wilco cover)
  5. A Shot in the Arm