Last night at Fayetteville’s Arkansas Music Hall, the members of Wilco took the stage like they have something to prove. And perhaps they do. In the past year the band's new album, “The Whole Love,” has been both critically acclaimed and panned as “dad rock.” Five months after its release, critic Nitsuh Abebe called Wilco “new adult contemporary” and “NPR Muzak” in New York magazine, maybe because a month earlier, NPR dubbed Wilco “perhaps America’s best band.”
I don’t own a Wilco album past “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and I haven’t listened to “The Whole Love” beyond online samples. But after last night, I think I’ll buy everything the band has ever put out. The show was more than solid — it was fresh, throbbing, expansive and experimental. Wilco gave a seamless performance, befitting the band that pioneered alt-country and then continued to exorcise their discontent, culling from the groups they’ve played with (Sonic Youth, Radiohead) and the music they were brought up on (the entire cannon of American and British post-invasion rock). Wilco has come through the honky-tonk trainwreck of too many hotel rooms and too many pills and delivered an ellipses of something akin to hope — power-pop dosed with the bleeps, blips and textural effects of urban decay, filtered through the orchestral soundscapes of musical maestros. The live performance managed surprises and immediacy, without sacrificing the albums’ studio effects.
They opened with "Misunderstood," from 1996’s “Being There.” It’s pretty, sentimental and melancholic — “thank you all for nothing, nothing at all,” Tweedy crooned. It was a confounding beginning until it hit a stunning, disconcordant break — a mid-song boulder of screaming, pounding instruments and clashing lazers. Then, there was a quiet return, a sigh and a reining-in. This was to become the trademark of the show — art rock as yoga, where everything is about breath and the explosive revelation that comes after contemplation. Singularly and as a whole, these songs and this set contracted and expanded, spacing out and speeding up, rendering the studied unexpected.
Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt are the core of Wilco. They’re the only original members, and last night, Stirratt’s backing vocals came through nearly as strong as Tweedy’s lead. Tweedy seemed relaxed but focused — he wasn’t in the mood to chat or noodle. Pat Sansone was playful and entertaining, hopping from guitar to keyboard to maracas, whirlwind arm and classic stances on display, while guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and drummer Glenn Kotche were straight up noise contortionists, constructing elaborate architecture around familiar melodies. Wilco plays as a collective rather than a collection of musicians, and this was an avant garde mission rather than a recital. Wilco has a nine album catalogue of songs, and they pulled from all of it and never stopped pushing. Over two hours (a set and two encores), the sounds and the performance increased in swagger and intensity.
The crowd was older — more middle-aged singer-songwriter types than traditional college students — and they seemed largely appreciative. The “Summerteeth” track "A Shot in the Arm" and anything off “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" were obvious hits. They played the gorgeously tragic "Jesus, Etc." and later, the nostalgic "Heavy Metal Drummer," which highlighted Striatt’s earnest vocals and showcased the crowd's penchant for singalongs.
When everything is flawlessly executed, it's hard to name standouts, but I’d go with "Via Chicago." The song itself is hypnotically beautiful, which made what came next — the hailstorm of strobes and sound courtesy of Cline, Jorgensen, Kotche and Sansone — all the more startling. But the best part was that underneath and throughout the anomalous chaos, Tweedy and Stirratt held fast to the fragile melody, coming out of the other side of the noise all the more impressive, exquisite and reassuring because of it. It was kind of a metaphor for Wilco itself.