Shut up and play the hits.
A thought that many of us concertgoers are thinking at most of the shows we attend. We’re there to rock out, singalong and shake our bodies. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. But on Sunday night out at McMenamins Edgefield that’s exactly what Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco did. They shut up and played the hits!
Edgefield’s early evening curfew had the band take the stage with plenty of sunlight still overhead, giving way to that awkward concert in the park vibe common at the venue as the crowd’s chairs and blankets were splayed all over the lawn. Even as Wilco walked out to their intro track “EKG” from their latest album Star Wars, it did little to halt the few that could still be seen sitting and knitting or crocheting and get them to rise to their feet. With little hesitation though, frontman Jeff Tweedy, guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen and drummer Glenn Kotche launched into Star Wars and proceeded to treat the crowd to a live version of the entire album played front to back. Although it was still too bright to make full use of the stage lighting, the songs stood out as beautifully crafted pieces of work with a few tracks, such as “Random Name Generator,” “You Satellite” and “Pickled Ginger,” that are sure to grow legs with time and become staples of Wilco’s tremendous musical repertoire.
With a handful of seconds left in each song, Wilco’s stagehands were already walking out with new instruments for Tweedy and Cline allowing them to launch directly into the next track with little time to absorb or over-interpret each individual song. It’s funny though, because this became one of the times where you actually kinda missed the repartee. Tweedy is known for his onstage banter and jokes, and on this particular night, he did very little of that, which is quite uncharacteristic at a Wilco show. In all fairness, to make up for it, the hits did just keep coming. So many in fact, it became difficult at times to keep track of the set list after rocking out to one great song after another. (Check out the whole set list and show poster here.)
After a playing all the way through Star Wars, Tweedy gave a quick quip wondering when the sun would go down and how it was “a little too weird” to be able to still see the audience. But as dusk began to nigrescent, the real rock and roll show began. There is a reason Wilco has been tagged as one of the greatest rock and roll bands of our generation and once you see them perform, it’s tough to disagree—whether you know their material or not. They have such an eclectic mix of genre-blending songs and an inventiveness to explore the depths of sound within each of them that it’s easy to get taken aback, and it’s almost confusing as to how you should categorize their sound. Combine that with a steady stream of flickering LEDs, wailing guitarist theatrics, and a blinking owl stage prop and as a friend put it, “It’s like going from enjoying a meal from an executive chef to a three-star Michelin chef.”
Tearing through heavy fan-favorite tracks such as “Hummingbird,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was a treat for most everyone there and gave the audience a great glimpse of the insanely talented Nels Cline and Patrick Sansone. At times, Cline looked like a man possessed shredding away on his guitar (including the double neck) and stealing the show with his ebullient display of energy and finger work, while Sansone pounded away at the keys jumping excitedly up and down with vivacious movements. While songs like “Via Chicago” gave way to some serious inner turbulence and allowed Kotche to pulverise his drumkit, songs like “Impossible Germany” brought all the attention back to Cline and the intricacies with which his fingers can move. All in all, it was an impressive display as the band proceeded to play 24 songs before they even hit the encore break.
Making sure to cram as many tunes in as they could before the 10pm curfew, the gentlemen of Wilco assuredly strolled back out onto the stage for a six-song, all-acoustic encore including songs “Misunderstood,” “It’s Just That Simple” and “A Shot in the Arm.” They did a couple of Billy Bragg covers and even invited friends and musicians Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney) and Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5) to play a splendid rendition of the Billy Bragg song “California Stars” (listen to the recorded version from the 1998 collab record Mermaid Avenue below). It was a densely layered performance for an overall jam-packed evening of music and one that had everyone walking away in amazement, wondering if they truly could handle it when a band just shuts up and plays the hits.