Friday Night: Wilco at Verizon Wireless Theater

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Wilco Verizon Wireless Theater March 7, 2008

Better than: Sitting around chatting at a friend’s dinner party, with Being There or Sky Blue Sky in the background. Sadly, some people thought they actually were.

Download: Stream Sky Blue Sky bonus track “The Thanks I Get,” which you may recognize from a recent Volkswagen commercial, at www.myspace.com/wilco.

Before Friday, some people wondered if Wilco would ever come back to Houston. After the Chicago six-piece’s nicotine-jonesing leader Jeff Tweedy flipped out on a fan for repeatedly (and rather rudely) requesting “The Lonely 1” at their April 2005 Verizon appearance, I remember thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I live in Austin, where they actually like playing.”

What a difference three years makes, but now as then, Tweedy was a bit under the weather. In this case, his voice was shot from Wilco’s recent hometown residency, where they spread every song from their 13-year catalog over five nights, and their first-ever Saturday Night Live appearance six days prior didn’t help either. However, he was much more sanguine about it this time around.

“What if we just played a bunch of songs you guys knew the words to?” he asked, only half rhetorically, before beginning one of Wilco’s best-loved songs, Mermaid Avenue’s “California Stars.” The sold-out crowd – twenties and thirties, well-to-do and about two-thirds male, par for the Wilco course – was more than happy to oblige, except for a few parties on the periphery who found their own conversations much more interesting than Tweedy’s lyrics. Tsk tsk.

Wilco’s overall mood Friday was more Wilco 1.0 – the melancholy, melodic ruminations common to 1996’s Being There and the two Mermaid Avenue albums, rather than the noise-addled parlor-feedback trickery of more recent, “experimental” efforts Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. Besides “California Stars,” “Remember the Mountain Bed” and “Airline to Heaven” surfaced from the Mermaids, as did the similar (and seldom-played) “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” from 1999’s Summerteeth and Being There’s “Forget the Flowers.” Even the selections from the Yankee/Ghost years – “Jesus, Etc., “Muzzle of Bees,” “Handshake Drugs” – rank among those albums’ gentler tracks.

Though it’s split fan opinion down the middle, between the listless, anodyne dad-rock camp and those who find it their most mature album to date, 2007’s Sky Blue Sky does at least try to reconcile the two Wilcos. Four of Friday’s five Sky songs – opener “You are My Face,” “Impossible Germany,” “Side With the Seeds” and “Walken” – showed as much, Tweedy’s soft-pedaled verses framing spacious, faster-paced interiors that left lead guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardists Mikael Jourgensen and Pat Sansone room to noodle and squall to their hearts’ content. As usual, bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche did yeoman’s work no matter the tune.

But like their free-thinking Americana ancestors – The Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers, the Band and Neil Young sprang to mind Friday – Wilco knows when to ditch the more esoteric corners of its catalog and go for the jugular. Hence, after foreshadowing with meat-and-potato cuts from first album A.M. (“Shouldn’t Be Ashamed,” “Boxful of Letters”) and closing the main set with Yankee’s buoyant “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” Tweedy and company encored with Sky’s raucous, Beatles-biting “Hate It Here” and finally a riff-heavy suite showcasing Being There’s rock & roll heart.

Firing off “Kingpin,” “Red Eyed & Blue,” “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” and “Monday” in rapid succession, Wilco showed how easy it would have been for them to remain a passable (and potent) alt-country answer to AC/DC. That they chose not to, though, goes a long way toward explaining why Verizon was full Friday night - and will be again whenever they choose to return.

Personal Bias: As might be evident, I’ve listened to my share of Wilco albums. Probably more.

Random Detail: I missed it myself, but I heard Cline and opener John Doe brought the house down on a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Nuts.

By the Way: Hearing those two songs from A.M. was as big a surprise as when they broke out “Casino Queen,” also from that 1995 debut, at last year’s Austin City Limits festival. – Chris Gray

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