About an hour and a half into Wilco’s 29-song set Tuesday night, Jeff Tweedy finally took a few minutes to address a capacity crowd at the Mission Ballroom. He apologized for not talking a whole lot, figuring everyone there knew all the songs. He didn’t need to introduce them, and if anyone didn’t know, they could ask their neighbor.
“I didn’t want to talk a lot, because we've got a lot of material to get through,” Tweedy said. “Plus, I sound like a stupid asshole when I talk.”
If anything, Tweedy can be a funny asshole when he talks. Just before apologizing about not talking a whole lot, he said, “It feels like we’ve braved the space-time continuum. Maybe I’m just getting a contact high from you guys.” Quite a few clouds of smoke had been rising above the crowd by that point.
“Hope not,” Tweedy said and then paused for a moment. “Hope so.”
A few minutes later, Tweedy announced that Wilco was officially a band that has been performing concerts for 25 years and two days.
“Two days!” Tweedy said. “So that’s gotta be really exciting for you to be here on such an amazing occasion. This is a song from 25 years and two days ago.”
With that, the band went into “Box Full of Letters,” from Wilco’s 1995 debut, A.M. Up until that point in the show, the band had leaned heavily on material from its most recent effort, Ode to Joy, and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, giving the audience a taste of just how far Wilco’s scope has reached over the past quarter of a century. While the new album is a bit more subdued, A Ghost Is Born is more adventurous sonically.
After playing “Box Full of Letters,” Tweedy mentioned that he preferred the Mission Ballroom to Red Rocks.
“Red Rocks is pretty and everything, but this...I feel you all,” he said. “I can feel you. I don’t like being outside. We played in a snowstorm there one time. Fuck that shit! No rock band should ever have to play in a snowstorm. And we played in several. It’s true.”
While Tweedy felt closer to the audience at the Mission, the sound was immensely better as well, with a lot of detail and nuance. Whether it was guitar wiz Nels Cline scraping behind the bridge of a vintage Fender Jazzmaster, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone playing xylophone, or drummer Glenn Kotche playing any one of his various percussion instruments, it wouldn’t have sounded nearly as well-defined at Red Rocks.
Wilco opened the night with “Bright Leaves” and “Before Us,” the first two songs on Ode to Joy. The group eased into the set, almost with a whisper, before gradually ramping up the energy over “Company in My Back” and “War and War,” then taking things up a notch on “Handshake Drugs.” That song showcased Cline, who joined the band not long after A Ghost Is Born was released. Near the end of the song, Cline, Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Sansone were all creating a massive wash of sound that ended on a wave of feedback.
Sure, Wilco was a forerunner in alt-country two and a half decades ago, but Tuesday’s show displayed how much the group has evolved since then. The germs of experimentation were even there twenty years ago on “Via Chicago,” and when Wilco played it live, the number started off fairly tame but then had a few freakout sections where drummer Kotche pounded away on the kit while strobes flashed.
After running through “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” Tweedy said that was the main set and that the band would pretend to go to the side of the stage and come back. It was a bit confusing, because it wasn’t actually an encore yet. The band played “Hold Me Anyway” and “The Late Greats” and left the stage.
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Some people left, thinking the show was over. But a few minutes later, Wilco came back on stage.
“It occurs to me every time we play here...maybe I have done this in the past, and I feel ashamed if I have," Tweedy began. "I’m not going to pander to you by changing the lyrics to ‘Colorado Stars,’ just so you know. Don’t wait for it. It’s not going to happen.”
After that announcement, the band used “California Stars,” which Wilco originally recorded with Billy Bragg using lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, as a sort of springboard for a trio of songs from Being There to close out the show, including vigorous rockers “I Got You (At the End of the Century) and "Outtasite (Outta Mind).”
Hear Wilco and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.