Wilco at Wolf Trap: Something for Everyone

Friday, July 10, 2009

At many points during Wilco's 15-year career, frontman/visionary Jeff Tweedy could have steered the group down a specific path -- alt-country saviors, experimental rock iconoclasts -- but instead he's kept sound-shifting. In fact, he has spent the past few years moving toward a more streamlined center. That's not necessarily good news on record -- the band's last two albums have expanded its fan base but surely aren't among Wilco's most exciting.

It presents no problems at all in a live setting, though. With a stacked catalogue to cherry-pick, there was a little something for everyone at the band's sold-out performance at Wolf Trap Wednesday night: mellow AM-radio throwback rock, bouncy pop, sullen bummers and plenty of jammy guitar epics, all delivered in the tightest possible package.

While Tweedy is clearly the heart and soul of the band, guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glen Kotche are just as crucial in defining Wilco's current aesthetic. After a noodly buildup on "Impossible Germany," Cline manipulated some tasteful noise from one of his trademark Fenders while Tweedy and guitarist Pat Sansone doubled up, creating an unstoppable triple-guitar attack that deserved every bit of the mid-song applause and high-fives it received.

The six-piece band excelled on longer songs that let it explore all the textures and talents at its disposal. "Misunderstood" and "Bull Black Nova" were recorded 13 years apart but still felt like kindred spirits. "Handshake Drugs" was another standout, starting as a minimal, stoned shuffle before ending in a fury of messy guitar feedback. But "messy" is a relative term; this current lineup, the most stable and tenured in Wilco history, is always in complete control. And while that means there's a certain lack of spontaneity, well, this isn't exactly a garage band playing at a local dive.

-- David Malitz

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