Wilco Does Wilco for a Long, Long Time

It must be fascinating to watch Wilco rehearse, if only to gain a little insight into how and perhaps why they make the decisions they do. This is a group that can play for well over two hours, as it did Thursday at Bayou Music Center, and leave quite a few songs that regular fans might expect to hear -- "California Stars," for example, or "War On War" and "The Late Greats" -- out of the set.

Omitting such beloved tracks would be a serious party foul for most bands, but the Wilco faithful know it only opens the door for songs we may not have heard live in years...if ever. "I Got You (End of the Century)," maybe. Or "Box Full of Letters." That's why we love this band.

Though surely not for very long, Wilco is in a nostalgic mood these days due to its 20th anniversary as a band; debut album A.M. was released in March of 1995. With it have come the corresponding career-spanning compilations What's Your 20 (the "hits," as it were) and Alpha Mike Foxtrot (one-offs, live tracks, B-sides, etc.), which all told amount to some 120-something songs. And yet a typical Wilco set tops out at around 25; what is a band to do?

Thursday, Wilco began by feeling out the room with "Via Chicago" -- the gentle tune that midway through tears through its own fabric with a sudden onslaught of feedback and noise, while the band members not responsible for the din barely bat an eyelash -- and then "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," the tentative and fragile opener of the band's best-selling album, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and one of their most hummable latter-day songs, the furrowed-brow ballad "One Wing." It felt like Wilco was feeling out the room while they figured out what kind of show they wanted this to be. (Besides a long one.)

But in truth there is only one kind of Wilco show, one that positively answers the question, "Did it feel complete?" This one did. There were lots of songs for the band, the ones that climax with minute after minute of abstract interlocking guitar lines: "Impossible Germany," "At Least That's What You Said," "Born Alone," "Handshake Drugs." "Art of Almost" also stood out early on, peak avant-garde Wilco with heavy electronic effects, skewed time signatures and lead guitarist Nels Cline, a stone badass, switching guitars mid-song. When all six members disappear inside one of those musical labyrinths, it's some pretty potent alchemy.

What keeps Wilco from being strictly an art-house band, though, is that's not all they want to be, and certainly not all they're capable of. They also played some of the folkiest songs in their catalog, like the heavy jangle of "Secret of the Sea," from the Mermaid Avenue/Woody Guthrie projects; or "Bob Dylan's 49th Beard," from 2003's More Like the Moon EP. It's funny (and it might just be my imagination), but Thursday it seemed like Wilco knew there was a point when they were going to have to start playing something a little less obscure, and get on with the business of a true rock and roll show.

Front man Jeff Tweedy seemed to be in an amiable mood all night, and around this point he explained that for their anniversary tour, Wilco indeed wanted to play material that they hadn't for a long time, if at all. But everything has its limits; "we've played this song a fucking lot," he said introducing "Heavy Metal Drummer." And from that point on, the final third of the main set mixed some of Wilco's biggest singalongs with some welcome surprises from their early years: "Jesus, etc.," "Forget the Flowers," "Passenger Side," a chunky hard-rock version of "Kamera, "Boxful of Letters," and so on. For fans, it really was like Christmas come early.

The encores were even more fun, opening with Wilco (The Album) outtake "Dark Neon," perhaps the closest Wilco has ever come to an AC/DC song. Next came two Being There tracks, "Red-Eyed & Blue" and "I Got You (End of the Century)," where they acted like that KISS cover band from "Heavy Metal Drummer." After another short break, they returned with a set of acoustic instruments (banjo, Dobro) to strum their way through "The Thanks I Get," "Hoodoo Voodoo" and "A Shot In the Arm," huddled around each other like a group of subway-platform buskers.

It was just the latest side of a band with many facets but only one identity. Wilco does Wilco; it's just what they do.

Personal Bias: This review is dedicated to my old Daily Texan buddy Mike, because our mutual love of Wilco is one of the building blocks of our friendship; we saw some of their earliest shows in Austin together and loved every second. When the band played "Passenger Side" Thursday, I like to think it was because Tweedy & Co. knew Mike had been on my mind all day. Rooting hard for you, man.

The Crowd: Like looking in a mirror, pretty much. Big date night for music nerds.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Come back more!"

-- after Tweedy said, "It's good to be back in Houston"

Random Notebook Dump: At stage right was an alcove full of at least 30 to 40 guitars. One, which Tweedy said he had dubbed "Bob," led to some pretty amusing banter about Bob Dylan.

SET LIST Via Chicago I Am Trying to Break Your Heart One Wing Panthers Handshake Drugs Wishful Thinking Art of Almost She's a Jar I'm Always In Love At Least That's What You Said Either Way Bob Dylan's 49th Beard Secret of the Sea Heavy Metal Drummer Jesus, etc. Born Alone Impossible Germany Whole Love Passenger Side Forget the Flowers Kamera Box Full of Letters Dawned On Me

ENCORE 1 Dark Neon Red-Eyed & Blue I Got You (End of the Century)

ENCORE 2 The Thanks I Get Hoodoo Voodoo A Shot In the Arm

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray