Wilco (photo: Patric Carver)
“You still love rock and roll?”
That’s the central question at the heart of “Misunderstood,” Wilco’s emphatically dismissive opener to 1996’s roots-rock classic Being There. If that query seemed premature when the band asked it on their second studio album, it’s perhaps long overdue now that they’rep set to release their tenth, the impeccably titled Schmilco, this Friday. But of course you love rock and roll! That’s why you’re reading about the first performance of Wilco’s five-date residency at The Fillmore last night. Yet if you were actually there, it’s also why you might have hesitated for a moment to reevaluate your answer.
It hasn’t been long since Wilco returned from their last tour in support of the previous year’s Star Wars, which saw the band performing heavily on the festival circuit and delivering sets front-loaded with the entirety of their then new album and further packed with their heaviest hitters. I caught that tour at last year’s Outside Lands Festival, and it was a pretty spectacular sight. The band had their folk-rock blitzkrieg down to a science, and was able to captivate an entire field of college students waiting eagerly for Mumford & Sons to perform later at the same stage. If that setting wasn’t quite ideal for a band of this stature, they still owned their platform, and likely earned some new converts on the way.
But if you were new to the band when you caught them last night, you’d likely have walked away unimpressed — and maybe even early — from the show. While Wilco’s series of Fillmore shows offers perhaps the best venue to see the group in the city, the performance itself failed to make much use of the hallowed space. The band hinted that this tour in support of the more low-key Schmilco would be sparser sonically, but that didn’t quite give away just how tired the proceedings would feel.
The atmosphere was too casual, with the band’s energy giving off the impression of a mere opening band rather than the storied legends they are. While I initially expected a graceful rapture from the Wilco’s stripped-down setup, I was dismayed to discover an uninspired vapidity. There was no resolve to impart impact, and no momentum that could elevate one song by building on the energy of the last. Live staples that rank amongst the band’s best across their catalog withered unceremoniously in place, with little oomph offered by the six-piece to push the tracks to their studio heights.
You could hear it (or rather couldn’t hear it) in the way the usually haunting “Reservations” simply meandered, or how the solo in the intricate “Impossible Germany” hit a lot of notes without ever striking a chord. The slimmed-down instrumentation allowed for moments of richer clarity than the band’s recent festival performances — taking the shape of an enveloping hurricane rather than a wall of one-directional wind — yet there just wasn’t enough force to elicit much of a response.
I couldn’t have expected any of this on paper. Wilco set lists look fantastic from afar. They’re sufficiently stocked, representative across their wide array of albums, and filled with treasures both pleasurably shallow and rewardingly deep. Yet up close, when actually experienced in person, that shining list of would-be moments actualizes as subdued motions. I’ve never seen a band with such a towering discography worse at delivering an engaging set.
While there were indeed instances when the energy crystallized into an ignition and propelled individual songs into highlights (most prominently “Theologians,” “We Aren’t The World (Safety Girl),” and “A Shot In The Arm”),but more often those expected highlights collapsed under a lack of conviction. “California Stars” was pretty, but also paltry — save for Pat Sansone’s absolutely delightful banjo solo. Meanwhile, a personal favorite of mine, “Dawned On Me” passed by largely inconsequential.
I wasn’t the only one in the predominantly stationary crowd hoping for a bit more. The most telling moment of the evening came during perhaps the third or fourth time an audience member heckled for the band to “turn loose,” to which Jeff Tweedy finally replied, “Turn your mind loose, man.” It was a fair comeback on principle, but a weak one in practice. Sure, Wilco delivered the set they wanted to play — one that echoed the modest restraint of Schmilco. Good for them! But it was largely a shame for the rest of us.
After wrapping up their first encore, the band came back on stage for a second reappearance to deliver one final tune. Leaning heavy into the squirmy chaos of the nearly eleven-minute buzz bruiser that is A Ghost Is Born’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” Wilco miraculously at last delivered on the promise of rock and roll theatrics and splendor that had been absent the rest of the evening. Alternating between a joyously bleary groove and a stomping distortion motif, the band instilled a sense of urgency that had been mournfully missed prior. They subsequently bowed to the most enthusiastic applause of the entire night, with a crowd finally fully awakened. But then they walked right off stage, leaving the audience’s restlessness without an outlet to merely settle back down. It was this last disappointment that hurt the hardest, because it was the one that proved the performance unrealized in retrospect.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love rock and roll. But I only caught a glimpse of it last night.
Photos by Patric Carver