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Wilco is something of a cult band: no hit singles, no massive record sales. But the group has garnered a devoted following through albums that have ranged from straight-ahead singer-songwriter Americana to more ethereal explorations of emotional tone and mood.
The opening night of a sold-out three-date run at the Wiltern in Los Angeles found the group offering up songs from its upcoming Nonesuch release simply called “Wilco” while also dipping into rarely played material to delight its most hard-core fans.
Wilco is one of the few acts on the road with set lists that change nightly, especially when playing a multiple-show stand in one city.
Clocking in at more than two hours, the 29-song performance (if you include “Happy Birthday” sung for their lighting tech) truly was as far-ranging as rock can get.
After an amusing introductory snippet of the theme from “The Price Is Right,” the band hit the stage with the title-ish track from the new album, anchored by its refrain of “Wilco will love you, baby,” then shifted into the older “A Muzzle of Bees.”
The driving saloon-piano triplets of the “Blue Black Nova” gave way to acid-rock tide pool of “You Are My Face,” the ache-laced “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and bittersweet yet hopeful “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed.”
Frontman Jeff Tweedy, who serves as a musical tour guide rather than a showman, didn’t have much to say early on. When he finally spoke to the crowd, pitching the tour programs filled with trivia tidbits, it was all tongue-in-cheek — a contrast to the often layered, conflicted emotional content of most of the songs.
But Wilco is one of those bands that makes up for a lack of stage patter with those musical riches. One moment the group sounds like heirs to the legacy of the Grateful Dead or the Band, then it’s delving into liquid Pink Floyd dreamscapes or unleashing unhinged, blistering yet steady cascades along the lines of Neil Young with Crazy Horse.
Credit guitarist Nels Cline for sinewy and spiraling leads that fueled the fire as the band built to crashing crescendos.
Off-center country rock remains among the group’s strongest offerings live, including “Handshake Drugs” and “You Never Know,” and the playful Southern rock of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” closed out the main set.
Encore selections featured house favorites: the rollicking “Box Full of Letters,” “Misunderstood,” the almost-Eurotrashy epic “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and the darn chipper “I Got You (At the End of the Century).”
Wilco is to play again — no doubt with a shifting set list — Tuesday night and wraps up the Wiltern stand Thursday.
Wilco (The Song)
Muzzle of Bees
A Shot in the Arm
At Least That’s What You Said
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
In a Future Age
Shouldn’t Be Ashamed
You Never Know
Hate It Here
I’m the Man Who Loves You
The Late Greats
Box Full of Letters
Red Eyed & Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
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