2010 Flashback: Wilco @ The National / Richmond, VA

You just don’t see many, if any, shows where the musical references include Woody Guthrie, the hooks and harmonies of golden-age AM radio, and decidedly uncommercial Lou Reed. Sextet Wilco is equally adept in folky twang, squalls of semi-harnessed noise, and tasteful layers within traditional pop structures.

Just as importantly, the 2010 Wilco lineup is stable, healthy, and energized. I don’t think I’m being prejudiced by this being my first show when I say this might be the single best time ever to see the band (if you’re up for a long night out). I have no real reason to think the Richmond show ranked above average for this tour, and it was definitely a Top 10 concert for me.

Pre-Show Pie

Traveling music: Armchair Apocrypha by Andrew Bird. Part of a homemade Aimee Mann comp. (On the way home, the rest of the Mann comp followed by Van Morrison’s Too Late To Stop Now.)

Dinner: Superstar Pizza on Patterson, down from Westhampton Bakery. Slice of Socrates and slice of Thai chicken. Diet Coke. Perfect pre-show meal. First chance to get back there in probably 10 years. Mmm, good pizza.

Venue: Beautiful, well-designed place to see a show. Open floor, seated balcony. I left the young’ns to handle the standing for 4 hours and grabbed a 2nd row seat on the aisle. Besides clean sight lines — I especially wanted to be able to watch Glenn Kotche drum at any time — the balcony also offered a clean, uncluttered mix. Sweet.

Also, impressive video screens of the stage at the bar, and a couple of patron lounges that were so nicely appointed that I’d seen their photos online and had assumed it was the green room.

Let’s Get One Thing Straight

Pat Sansone is Wilco’s secret weapon. They’d still be a great band without him, but between his versatility on guitar (one of three hurricanes on “Handshake Drugs”), keys (love the funky break on “Can’t Stand It”), and his vocals (that warm sound with Stirratt on “You Are My Face”) — not to mention his simultaneously friendly and rawk star demeanor — he makes them a really great band.

Setlist Gods Were Smiling

I went into this show knowing that Wilco had played 34 songs each of the past two shows, playing for nearly three hours. I knew I couldn’t count on those numbers at my first show, and I was right. They played 36 songs, for three hours on the nose. Ridiculous.

They’d still be a great band without Sansone, but between his versatility on guitar (one of three hurricanes on “Handshake Drugs”), keys (love the funky break on “Can’t Stand It”), and his vocals (that warm sound with Stirratt on “You Are My Face”) — not to mention his simultaneously friendly and rawk star demeanor — he makes them a really great band.

My favorite kind of Wilco song tends to be the more involved, 6-7 minute Wilco song. I had also tried to manage expectations beforehand by considering similar songs in this genre. Between “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Ashes Of American Flags”, maybe I’d hear one. Both played. Sky Blue Sky is rich with these, and I hoped I might hear half of “You Are My Face”, “Impossible Germany”, “Shake It Off”, and “Side With The Seeds”. All played.

“Shake It Off” was an internet request, and Tweedy accused the requester of stuffing the ballot box, claiming that nobody likes that song except that guy and Glenn. Given the quirky guitar riffage and Kotche’s drumming, it’s popular enough with me, so thanks, dude.

Even with the gentler midtempo moments from Summerteeth — “Jesus, Etc.” and “How To Fight Loneliness” — only the former seemed likely. Both played.

Crowd Detente

I didn’t expect so much variation in this crowd. I mean, sure, you had a bunch of skinny white guys who shared a common set of cultural references, musical tastes, and facial hair. That, I expected. And plenty of twenty- and thirtysomethings inhabited the floor.

But in front of me, were three women flirting with 60, and they knew their album tracks. One of them covered her ears now and then, but then again, she already had the t-shirt on. Beside me were another couple older than me, and I think he was an Uncle Tupelo-era fan. Nice.

Down on the floor, things were chatty, which certainly didn’t escape Tweedy. He commented two or three times, and seemed to blow the only lyric of the night when distracted by someone. My theory is that in a venue that holds just 1,500, the stage is simply that much closer to the bars in the rear, and they’ll always be noisy.

Jeff put a twist on his response to the noise and got some humor out of it before “Deeper Down” with something like this:

“OK, this next song is really quiet. So if you talk during it, we won’t like you. Oh, no, we’re gonna play it anyway, because we’ve worked too hard on it not to play it. So you can talk if you want, but if you do, you’re a bad person. … Well, it doesn’t really mean you’re a bad person ……. but you’re not a *good* person.”

The social butterflies piped down, and they were thanked after the song. Later, before the usual “Jesus, Etc.” singalong, Tweedy needled the floor a little, joking that maybe they’d simply been warming up their voices all night for this moment. However, the house held up our end, and that thawed things out for the rest of the show.

Acoustic Set

At the end of “Poor Places” (another welcome surprise), they retreated back into the primordial ooze of non-song noise that seems to spawn so many fully formed Wilco compositions. (It’s as if that sound is always present in a part of Tweedy’s brain — maybe it’s the migraines — and now and then, new songs leak out from it into the more tidy writing section.)

Official poster by Status Serigraph.

While that musical space was going on, techs started to assemble a second drum kit downstage. That signaled the beginning of a uniquely seamless transition into the night’s acoustic set. Tweedy and Cline on acoustics, Mike and Pat on single keyboards, and Stirratt occasionally on a slimmed-down acoustic bass.

The drone of “Spiders” kicked in, reverting from its 14 minutes of Krautrock to its original incarnation, 6 minutes long and with real drums. After “She’s A Jar”, they took me back to listening to the ’97 shows I used to trade on cassette through the USPS with a lively “Forget The Flowers”. Then what seems to be the first-ever full band performance of “Someday, Some Morning, Sometime”, a nice trivia bonus.

The personal highlight of the show, though, came next with “Not For The Season” (which was later retitled “Laminated Cat” for reasons that remain unclear other than Tweedy had joked onstage about naming a song that a few years prior). I’ve loved the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot outtake since its much louder original bootlegged incarnation and couldn’t believe they played it (especially after we’d established the crowd was not the most attentive). This was the only Tweedy song all night not from a Wilco release.

“How To Fight Loneliness” remains an unsung great in the catalog, from the classic title to the way the lyric lives within that swaying arrangement.

Everyone loves “California Stars” but I used it to see how the show looked from the floor. The acoustic set closed with “Passenger Side” and the Sesame Streetish bounce of “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)”, two more that I hadn’t counted on and which gave me another unexpected wave of nostalgia for my early fandom.

The acoustic set was worth the price of admission.

Back To Their OId Neighborhood

The acoustic set exited as it arrived, with no lull. Straight into “Misunderstood” and then the grand chamber pop of “Can’t Stand It”, beginning a four-song run that officially labeled the setlist as an embarrassment of riches.

(I’ll always remember sitting by myself in our magazine offices in Roanoke in ’97, putting in the fresh copy of Being There, and being totally blown away by “Misunderstood”. It was a clear signal that Tweedy had designs way beyond “Box Full Of Letters”.)

I could hardly complain about the now-predictable last few songs. Just like getting “Samson & Delilah” at a Grateful Dead show that fell on a Sunday, the bonus I should’ve seen coming came in the form of “Monday”, which, well, totally rocked.

To Recap …

Wilco is on a roll, and it’s as if they’ve chosen to do this string of marathon shows because they know it. Tweedy is in strong voice, the band is equally comfortable blowing it out or delivering nuance, and they can (and often have to) veer between the two on a dime. Other than the lone lyric flub, the caliber of performance and musicianship just didn’t leave much of anything to criticize.

3/29/10 @ The National
Richmond, VA

(“The Price Is Right” theme intro)

Electric set
Wilco (the song) / IATTBYH / Bull Black Nova / You Are My Face / One Wing / A Shot in the Arm / Shake It Off / I’ll Fight / Company In My Back / Handshake Drugs / Side With The Seeds / Deeper Down / Impossible Germany / Poor Places>

Acoustic set
Spiders (Kidsmoke) / She’s A Jar / Forget The Flowers / Someday, Some Morning, Sometime / Laminated Cat / How To Fight Loneliness / California Stars / Passenger Side / Outta Mind (Outta Sight)>

Electric set
Misunderstood / Can’t Stand It / Jesus, etc. (crowd singalong) / Ashes of American Flags / You Never Know / Hate It Here / Theologians / Walken / I’m The Man Who Loves You / Monday / Thank You Friends [Big Star]

Heavy Metal Drummer / I’m A Wheel

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