Wilco Takes the Orpheum

wilco use thisTolstoyan novels’ worth of blog posts have been written in the past decade about how Wilco is a band with nothing left to prove. Indeed, after the inarguable artistic success and public spectacle of 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, singer/songwriter/guitarist Jeff Tweedy and his increasingly stable orchestra of collaborators have already made their contribution to that sublime meta-genre of “good music,” otherwise occupied by the likes of Dylan, Davis, and Wilson.

Thus, the last few Wilco records, which have undoubtedly expanded the band’s already laudable legacy of innovative Americana, were met with warm ambivalence by the increasingly jaded mainstream rock community. This summer, the surprise release of Star Wars, the band’s celebratory ninth album, put a welcome end to that critical malaise.

This album, performed in full at the beginning of Saturday night’s concert, exudes a sense of youthful buoyancy and experimentation. Yet it is remarkable for its sonic service to Tweedy’s always impeccable songcraft with sprinkles of the noisy exuberance that defines the best of Wilco’s catalogue. In a sense, Wilco has again redefined itself by doing what it does best.

Wilco’s performance on Jan. 30 at Boston’s Orpheum Theater began with a brief opening set from guitar instrumentalist William Tyler, who filled the historic theatre with sonic ghosts through his reverb-laden fingerstyle guitar tunes. Alternating between electric and acoustic instruments, Tyler impressed with his densely looped soundscapes that emanated a tripped-out John Fahey vibe.

After a brief break, Wilco’s headlining performance was announced with the noisy, angular overture of Star Wars’ opening track, “Ekg,” being pumped through the PA. The grid-like backdrop illuminated in increasingly chaotic patterns of different colors and shapes, impressionistically setting the stage for the evening. The band took the stage below the growing cacophony of sound and color being woven above them.

As the band bravely dove into the soaring chorus of “More,” Star Wars’ first proper song, there was no doubt in the room of the band’s immediate relevance and vitality, nearly 15 years and several band members removed from their initial masterwork.

Wilco’s spikier edge was on display in songs like the crunchy “Random Name Generator” and “Pickled Ginger.” Fans of the more emotional material would have favored tender ballads like “Taste the Ceiling” and “Where Do I Begin,” both as masterful as anything Tweedy’s ever written. “Magnetized,” the album’s heartfelt closing song, is perhaps one of the band’s best expressions of its full artistry, combining classic folk-rock songcraft with more progressive textures.

The post-Star Wars section of the show opened with the surprise one-two-three punch of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and “Art of Almost,” three of the best-loved though most challenging pieces of their repertoire. With this song selection, the band sent a clear message that it meant business, no doubt inspired by its excitement about the wealth of new material.

The rest of the show wove together selections from the best-loved corners of Wilco’s vast canon of recorded songs. The attentive audience seemed equally excited for the more recent selections, as they were sure-fire crowd-pleasers like “Box Full of Letters” and “Heavy Metal Drummer.”

In an orchestral vision of a band, Wilco functions in devout service to its material, serving the needs of the given song with their wide range of individual influences and musical tendencies. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgenson and drummer Glenn Kotche tend to push the music in a more explosive and experimental direction, while utility multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and founding bassist John Stirratt maintain a firm grounding in American roots music that sets Wilco apart from its indie royalty contemporaries.

Lead guitarist Nels Cline shines as the musical backbone of the group’s current incarnation, despite his apparent onstage modesty. Though initially drafted into the band from the almost-academic world of avant-garde jazz, Cline seems equally adept playing lap steel guitar and his trusty Fender Jazzmaster guitar in swirling melodic patterns that color even the more chaotic moments with understated elegance amidst unrelenting innovation.

After an almost two-hour set highlighting the more assertive electric elements of the band’s catalogue, Wilco returned for an encore as an acoustic ensemble. In a miniature set-up at the lip of the stage, the group played fully unplugged instruments, including Cline on resonator, Sansone on six-string banjo, and Jorgenson on melodica.

While strumming and picking his Waterloo acoustic guitar, Tweedy led the musicians and audience through a celebratory half-dozen song singalong, bookended by the anthemic “Misunderstood” and “Shot in the Arm.” The acoustic arrangements of songs like “California Star” invoked the spirit of the band’s posthumous collaborator, Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie, Wilco has proven itself an eternally relevant and immediately vital entity in the often-ephemeral music world.