To say that Jeff Tweedy’s band have, over the years, become something of an Americana institution is to put the ‘under’ well and truly into ‘understatement’. Such is the band’s stature that their gigs nowadays might equally and legitimately be labelled as ‘events’. So, to the majestic surroundings of Manchester’s Albert Hall, devotees travelled from across the north of England and beyond to witness one of only three UK dates on the current Wilco tour. Despite a hefty £38 ticket price, the show was sold out weeks in advance.
If the music that we call ‘Americana’ is a Venn diagram of all different influences and styles, then there’s an argument to be made that over the last 24 years Wilco have drawn their own separate circle somewhere to the left of the rest. Indeed, is it, or was it ever, accurate to describe their music as Americana in the first place? The 2000 people in attendance probably gave little consideration to such matters. For many of them, Wilco are simply the best band on the planet right now and they were there to have a ball.
With Wilco’s latest album ‘Ode to Joy’ due out exactly one week later, the band were always going to preview songs from it. They opened up with two songs from that collection – ‘Bright Leaves’ and ‘Before Us’. Both were enthusiastically received, and the band went on to play a further four during their 27 song, two hour long, performance. The current single ‘Love is Everywhere (Beware) and ‘Hold Me Anyway’ being particular stand-outs. Like much of what he does, Tweedy got it right in terms of balance. The rest of the show was a crowd-pleasing run through the Wilco back catalogue. Every album was dipped into with ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ the most represented with six songs. ‘Box Full of Letters’ from 1995’s debut album ‘AM’ sounded as fresh as ever, whilst ‘California Stars’ from ‘Mermaid Avenue’, a collaboration with Billy Bragg setting newly discovered Woody Guthrie lyrics to music, provided the only ‘cover’ of the night.
By selecting such a wide range of songs from over the last 24 years, Tweedy demonstrated an almost Springsteen like ability to revamp and reinvigorate his compositions into something both familiar, but at the same time fresh, modern and sometimes surprising. With a band as tight as a submarine door, it was an almost flawless performance, utilising contrasts between the frantic and the still, noise and quiet and the improvised and the deliberate. Catchy melodic acoustic strumming and whispered words stood alongside madcap electric and percussive wig-outs, sometimes in the course of the same song.
Tweedy likes to let his music talk, saying little or nothing himself between songs. At one point having briefly uttered a few words, the crowd shouted for more. Tweedy retorted, “You don’t want to hear me talk” to which his audience replied that actually, yes they did. Tweedy then sardonically shouted, “Are you all having a good time?” and on receiving an affirmative reply, sarcastically groaned, “Great,” before launching into the next song to approving laughter.
As the curfew approached, the set was brought to an end with a tumultuous rendition of ‘Misunderstood’ from ‘Being There’. After the traditional short break for the clapping of hands, stamping of feet and honing of loud whistling skills, the band returned to encore with ‘I’m Always in Love’ from ‘Summerteeth’. They were joined on harmony vocals by Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart, otherwise known as Chicago duo OHMME who had previously entertained early arrivals with their spirited brand of indie rock. The evening reached its conclusion with ‘The Late Greats’ from ‘A Ghost is Born’. The band were given a massive ovation having provided a very special performance. As the year approaches that time for review and reflection, Wilco will no doubt feature in many ‘gig-of-the-year’ lists of those wise enough to have bought their tickets early.