Wilco celebrate 20 years live at the Orpheum

wilWilco kicked off their 20th anniversary North American tour at the beginning of the month. Last Wednesday, they stopped at the Orpheum Theatre and performed a gigantic two-and-a-half-hour set that spanned their career, pleasing fans no matter when Wilco entered their lives.

Jenny Lewis, another veteran of early aughts indie music, joined Wilco as support. Unfortunately, with people still filing in at 8:10 p.m., her opening song, the bittersweet but uptempo “Head Underwater”, failed to get the early birds on their feet. As the theatre filled up though, the reception grew warmer, especially for Lewis’s older songs. The crowd instantly whooped as she strummed the first few chords of Rilo Kiley’s “With Arms Outstretched”, from 2002’s The Execution of All Things. Lewis and her five-piece band then complemented “Outstretched” with a new song, “Red Bull and Hennessy”, “a terrible drink, by the way,” she warned. “Hennessy” recalled Fleetwood Mac, its urgency similar to that of “Rhiannon”. Afterwards, Lewis confessed: “I haven’t actually tried that drink.” She wrapped with the campfire-made “Acid Tongue”, solo, acoustic, surrounded by her band singing harmony.

The No Wave discordance of Wilco’s “EKG” filled the Orpheum as glitzy lights flashed overhead, like a scintillating fireworks display of American colours. For 45 minutes, the band mostly played their latest album, last month’s surprise-released free LP, Star Wars. The crowd, perhaps because they were less familiar with the new material, remained somewhat subdued.

Wilco then commenced what could have been called part two of their set with A Ghost Is Born cut “Handshake Drugs”. The song’s tremolo alone received their largest ovation yet. From this point on, the fan favourites kept coming – for an-hour-and-forty-five minutes. The band even seemed more enthusiastic as they played the hits from A Ghost Is Born, The Whole Love, and their breakthrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The band also sprinkled in a few selections from Being There and Mermaid Avenue volumes I and II.

“Kamera” lost a bit of shine in its more rocking incarnation, but that was about as much as one could have lamented. (Fans got the pep they desired later with “Heavy Metal Drummer” anyway.) “At Least That’s What You Said” hooked the crowd throughout the song’s entire slow-building course. “Secrets of the Sea” led straight into “I’m the Man Who Loves You”.

Wilco’s tender moments are as beloved as the catchy melodies, rocking riffs, and dissonant weirdness that have garnered them the first half of the “alt-folk” tag that has followed them for most of their career. The audience dialed into “Muzzle of Bees”, “Via Chicago”, and “Jesus, Etc.” with a deafeningly silent reverence. With its celebratory tone, “The Late Greats” was just one of many songs that could have sent fans home happy, but it worked just as well as a buffer between the main set and the encore.

As the band stepped offstage, crew members brought out a second drum kit and a banjo in the dark. It quickly became clear that Wilco wasn’t only going to play an encore but that they had something special planned.

In an entirely acoustic configuration (which also included a melodica and snare brushes), Wilco played a handful more favourites. After “Misunderstood” and “War on War”, Jenny Lewis and her whole band re-emerged and joined Wilco on “California Stars”. Finally, Wilco alone finished with Summerteeth cuts “I’m Always in Love” and “Shot in the Arm”. These two songs are among the sweetest in Wilco’s repertoire, but in pure acoustic, slightly (dare I say) bluegrass form, with banjo highlights, they radiated a whole other degree of warmth and joy. The acoustic versions of these songs, with Wilco gathered together near the front of the stage (and comically crowded with Lewis et al.) added a level of intimacy that was absent for much of the show.

Although Wilco omitted classics like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Ashes of American Flags”, the Chicago treasures played almost every other song mega-fans could have wanted to hear. There wasn’t much else diehards, or even casuals, could have asked for. Wilco’s commitments to variation and putting on a show worth every penny are just two reasons why they’ve been able to endure for so long. Never mind their song-craft and musicianship. Here’s awaiting the triple-cross.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu