While rock star Lenny Kravitz reminded us this week of one unfortunate way musicians can expose themselves on stage, Wilco’s intimate performance last night at the Independent captured quite another.
It's perhaps inevitable that a band acclimated to festivals and enormous theaters could feel a bit exposed at the Independent -- a venue with a capacity of just over 400, which is probably the same amount of people who'll be waiting in line to buy beer when the band takes the stage at Outside Lands tonight. But Wilco (and opening act Vetiver, operating as a duo) handled the challenge spectacularly. Instead of bringing their arena-sized riffs and explosive walls of sound to the Independent, the Chicago six-piece opted for a quieter route.
Billed as the Notorious Wilco Brothers, a nod to the Byrds, Wilco played an all-acoustic two-hour set that pulled back the curtain on their audacious sound and oft-opaque stage presence. They did more than merely play stripped-down versions of their songs; they invited us into their world.
In a room so small that a nearby sneeze competed for ones' attention, even the tiniest mistake from the stage would have nowhere to hide. While “Bull Black Nova,” a sprawling track from 2009’s Wilco (the Album), is typically engulfed in surging feedback and mountains of guitar effects, here Nels Cline’s solos were as spare as they were spastic, each note hanging with delicious clarity. Later, the sugary synthesizers on “I’m Always in Love” were replaced by a slide guitar and melodihorn to less impressive, but equally as daring, effect.
The changed format seemed to concern few, least of all frontman Jeff Tweedy, who sweated straight through his tan blazer and wore a grin all night. While these days Wilco often performs separated from their audience by barricades, they seemed glad to play for fans leaning on the Independent’s low stage just inches away -- at one point, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone leaned back on his stool and almost collided with an audience member.
The band's unadorned, acoustic versions of songs from Star Wars, the album Wilco surprise-released for free a couple of weeks ago, crackled with energy and confidence. With the addition of a banjo, the hulking glam-rock “More…” shifted its weight into a rollicking countrified gallop, and the blistering punch of “Pickled Ginger” somehow packed even more menace without the rifle crack of Glenn Kotche’s snare and Tweedy’s fuzzy distortion. The album’s closing track “Magnetized,” which leans heavily on a synth line that gurgles like a dishwasher full of fudge, proved to be the most captivating and inventive arrangement of the night, the void left by the massive synth making space to focus on the gentle cadence of Tweedy’s words. “I sleep beneath / a picture that I keep of you next to me / I realize we’re magnetized,” he declared, with all the heart-stopping bluntness of classics like “Via Chicago” and “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” (neither of which the band played last night).
Although Wilco interspersed this new material throughout the set, their encore was nothing but classics. In “Misunderstood,” Tweedy replaced the song’s howling, climactic mantra with a tender phrasing, before leading his band through the only unsurprising moment of the night: “California Stars.” “Sometimes the obvious choice is the best choice,” Tweedy quipped. “That’s why I’m supporting Trump 2016.”
Wilco took their name from the radio shorthand for “Will comply,” which Tweedy readily admits is a bit of an ironic statement for a band that for over two decades hasn’t complied with much of anything. Wilco has surprised us at every turn, shifting from a punk-inflected roots-rock band into '60s-indebted pop; delving into experimental noise on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then back to a more conventional palette on Sky Blue Sky; and most recently, the stark, sparse Star Wars. Their show Thursday night at the Independent only confirmed that 20 years in, that name still means something. Wilco gave us what they wanted, and the results were euphoric.