Review: Wilco’s Lasting Impression at the Downtown Pavillion

July 19, 2012

Ntellos Wireless Pavillion

Charlottesville, VA

It starts with the concert listing and ends with me walking away tired, hoarse and utterly alive; seeing Wilco perform has always been that way for me. The setup at the Pavilion was typical: a few visible guitars, a drum set, and keyboard–nothing too surprising or suspect. I felt simultaneously complacent and anxious, enjoying the atmosphere and company yet yearning to see those instruments become dynamic tools of creation. The lights dimmed, the crowd roared, and every single head in the venue rotated towards the stage.

Wilco have been around since the mid 90’s, creating music that never seems to stay in one place generically. After starting out with a sound that more resembled country or blues, they found a unique generic niche by 2002 with their seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which is where they started the night. “Poor Places,” with its layers of sound editing, piles on itself with the complex, elemental beauty of a millenniums-old bed of sedimentary rock. Jeff Tweedy took the concert through all those layers, even flirting with old songs such as “Box Full of Letters” off 1995’s A.M. before moving into Wilco’s most recent material from The Whole Love (2011). The band shifted genres as many times during the concert as they did in their career, and still seemed to generate a unanimously positive reaction at the Pavilion.

I had little choice but to lose myself in the familiar unfamiliarity of Mr. Tweedy’s thoughts and directions, and his supporting cast was stunning. Lead guitarist Nels Kline poured so much energy into his instrument during “Impossible Germany” that it seemed as if it were the first time he realized he could master the song. Profusely sweating drummer Glenn Kotche defiantly stood atop his stool at one point as bright white lights danced around his silhouette, almost as if to say “We are here, this is real.”

Halfway through the show, Tweedy brought everyone back down to earth with “Wishful Thinking,” almost as if contemplating out loud, “Fill up your mind with all it can know / Don’t forget that your body will let it all go / Fill up your mind with all it can know / What would we be without wishful thinking.” I closed my eyes and could still see the stage and the audience in my mind’s eye as my excited energy settled into appreciative introspection. Here was a man at the microphone with the multitudes at his fingertips, and he chose to drape his words over the crowd like a soft dusting of snow. Tweedy’s lyrics are enigmatic, complex, and sometimes seem downright nonsensical. Later, in “Art of Almost,” Tweedy mused “I’ll hold it up / I’ll shake the grail / Disobey across the waves / Tomorrow / I’ll have all the love I could ever ache / And I’ll leave almost with you.” Interpret as you will, but at the show, the intent felt so obvious that I didn’t long for explanation.

The concert ended just as it began, with the band quietly exiting the stage to momentous cheers of approval and gratitude. Satisfaction was apparent; the audience’s collective processing mechanism seemed to lag as the venue lights came back on. No one rushed for the exits, and no heads turned. For a few seconds, Wilco played on stage still, and the light show still reflected off the roof of the now bright pavilion. Yet Tweedy still commanded our attention: “Will I set the sun / On a big-wheeled wagon / I’m bragging / I’m always in love.”

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