There is good reason why the Wilco show sold out in less than 10 minutes. The Chicago band put on one of the better rock shows, at least in terms of musicality and pacing, that Richmond has seen in recent years; a coup for a young National Theater, which seems intent on carving out a destination for top-notch touring groups. Spoon, from Austin, Texas, just played a well-received show there, and upcoming concerts from Elvis Costello, Camera Obscura and Merle Haggard are in the pipeline.
When Wilco -- short for “will comply” in radio transmission lingo -- took the stage at 8 p.m., it did so to the blaring strains of “The Price Is Right” theme song. Tonight's packed house of 1,500 went on to cheer like a hungry arena crowd throughout the nonstop, nearly three-hour show as the band performed a well-oiled selection of its polished, '70s-influenced songs. From “Company in My Back” and the lurching, stop and starter “Shake It Off” (both from “A Ghost Is Born”) to mellow sing-a-long classics such as “Jesus, etc.” (“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”), to a miniacoustic segment featuring “She's a Jar” from “Summerteeth,” the band seamlessly mixed the familiar with newer tunes including opener “Wilco (the Song)”—which featured a quirky Devoesque public address announcement of the band line-up.
Bathed in spiraling blue light, Wilco threw down its trump card early: deconstructed pop ballads (its cornerstone song, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” was the night's second number). Many songs featured catchy melodies that built to experimental white noise crescendos led by wiry guitarist Nels Cline, who throttled and violently swung his guitars around a grab bag of sonic effects that could overwhelm or subtly color. Particularly mesmerizing, “Impossible Germany” featured a limber and emotive solo that recalled creative rock guitar geniuses such as Robert Quine and Arto Lindsay—with a little dual Allman Brothers soloing drawing cheers.
This is a band of many moods that is not afraid to sprinkle in toy piano keys or other nontraditional rock accompaniment—and they were in top form on this night.
No less a local music veteran than artist and drummer Ed Trask was seen checking out the show, and he complimented the playing of expressive drummer Glenn Kotche as some of the “most musical” he'd heard in modern rock -- high praise indeed from the great rock drummer for Avail and Kepone and others. But of course the central focus of tonight's show was raggedy frontman Jeff Tweedy.
From beneath his tousled mop of hair, Tweedy playfully exhorted the crowd to pay closer attention to the music and stop talking -- which seemed obsessive by the second or third time he mentioned it -- but at least he had the goods to back it up. Tweedy led the songs with a bittersweet, soulful voice that alternately displayed the grainy edge of Paul Westerberg and the intimacy and emotion of John Lennon.
Song highlights included a rootsy folk-rock version of the Woody Guthrie-penned “California Stars” (from the great 1998 Wilco album with Billy Bragg, “Mermaid Avenue”) and a pitch-perfect, celebratory cover of Big Star's “Thank You Friends” in ode to the recently departed Alex Chilton, whose guitar-driven, power pop rock is a clear influence on the band. There were song requests performed for charity that involved food gift certificates and shout-outs from Tweedy to Balliceaux and Millie's restaurants that also drew applause. Those who took photos or held up videophones would be given Applebee's or McDonald's coupons, according to Tweedy.
The National was an especially intimate setting for this world-class group and it paid off big time. Pretty much everything was hitting on all cylinders tonight and the music coming from the stage demanded attention and got it. “Instant hardwood classic” as they say over on ESPN.
Wilco (The Song), I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, 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, 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)*> Misunderstood, Can't Stand It, Jesus, etc., 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 cover)
Encore: Heavy Metal Drummer, I'm A Wheel.