There are two ways to see a big-time rock 'n' roll band when they come to town in support of a new album. The first is to do your best to ignore the new release so that when you hear the tunes live for the first time they will sound fresh and unfamiliar, filled with surprising chord changes and curious cadences. That was my experience of Wilco in 2009 when they played the Greek in Berkeley. In retrospect, I think it was the right choice -- at the time, if I had known that Wilco (the band) had just opened Wilco (the concert) with "Wilco (The Song)," which is the first track on Wilco (The Album), I probably would have been more confused than I was just now trying to write that sentence.
Saturday night, January 28, 2012, at the San Jose Civic was a different story. By the time Wilco took the stage at 9pm, I knew I was going to hear perhaps a half dozen tracks from the new album. This time I had prepared myself for the event by playing the living crap out of The Whole Love, which was released in the fall of 2011. As it turned out, the group performed seven songs from the album during their two-hour show, the first of three Bay Area stops on this current tour (they played last night at the Warfield; their show at the Fox in Oakland on Tuesday is long sold out).
Having experienced Wilco both willfully blind and moderately informed, I side with the latter. It's not just a question of the connectedness and recognition that auditory intimacy brings. With Wilco, the studio work is our armature for the live stuff, in much the same way, I can only suppose, that front man Jeff Tweedy's original acoustic-guitar version of a new song is an armature for the band. Obviously we don't get to contribute to Tweedy's writing in the same way as guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, long-time bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche and "multi-instrumentalist" Pat Sansone. But when we hear the variations on the studio work that a live performance brings, being there, if you'll pardon the Wilco-geek reference, feels like a form of participation.
Wilco at the San Jose Civic on 1/28/12; Photo: Ben Marks
Nothing illustrates this more than the way Wilco opened its San Jose show. "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" is a quiet, mournfully melodic figure that loops upon itself for more than 12 minutes and closes the new album. Opening a rock concert on such a soft note takes balls, but Tweedy and company had the crowd in the palm of their collective hand (at the end of the show, Tweedy announced that the famous author and her unnamed boyfriend were in attendance, but the song has been on the band's set list since September of 2011).
As performed on the album, "One Sunday Morning" has an almost clippity-clop briskness to it, at least when compared to the live performance I saw, which was defiantly deliberate. The way the song built, layer upon layer, was also more pronounced, which left lots of room for Cline and Jorgensen to sneak in and delight us with their humor and virtuosity before disappearing into silence like benevolent ghosts. At 12 minutes and change, it was over much too soon.
For its second and third numbers, Wilco played the first and second songs from The Whole Love. Whether live or in the studio, "Art of Almost" is all false stops and starts, punctuated by plenty of hooks and lots of serious sonic dissonance. "I Might," on the other hand, is one of numerous pleasant ditties on the album. Its goofily dated Strawberry Alarm Clock keyboard bits are fun enough on the album, but coming after "One Sunday Morning" and "Art of Almost," the tune felt like filler.
Similarly, "Born Alone" and "Capitol City" lacked the urgency of many of the other numbers played in the first set, although it's certainly too early to expect these songs to evoke the same level of warmth from the crowd as polished gems such as "California Stars," "Impossible Germany" and "Jesus, etc.," all of which Wilco played on Saturday night. The contrast between old and new seemed especially stark when the band moved from "Dawned on Me," which they recently made into a Popeye cartoon, and "A Shot in the Arm," which closed the first set. Watching Cline and Jorgensen go ape producing feedback before the encore break was a memorable bookend to the show's wonderfully moody start. Will "Whole Love," with its catchy roller-rink organ and falsetto vocals, performed during the encore set, ever enjoy the same level of passion from musicians and audience alike? Perhaps not, but "Art of Almost" might.