Hamer Hall has some funny restrictions when it comes to contemporary music, and the 11pm curfew makes an enemy of any band looking to really give fans their money’s worth.
Particularly for an act that likes to reach as deep and far into their discography as much as Wilco does, regularly mixing up their setlists and extending into stamina-defying two and a half hour sets.
Having discovered the Arts Centre’s modest closing times the night previous, Thursday night’s audience are greeted with a band who’ve no time for dawdling.
Following a comfortably woozy rendition of ‘She’s A Jar’, Jeff Tweedy speaks to the crowd for the first time – eight songs deep into the set; “We’re gonna break our record and play more songs than last night,” he decrees, “so enough chit-chat.”
It’s a shame that the characteristically charming banter from the scruffy frontman is curtailed, but their determination more than pays off (for the record, they play 28 tunes – three more than Wednesday).
With such a rich catalogue to draw from, the highlights are many, and as Tweedy half-mocks pre-encore, as he extolls the virtue of seeing both nights’ performances, “If you didn’t hear the song you like, it’s because you only came once.”
Fans of the older and the obscure alike were wholly satisfied. There was a pair of numbers from 1995 alt-country debut A.M., while no less than five (brilliant) cuts from Being There were rolled out, demonstrating that while they are one of music’s most restlessly creative and ever-evolving acts, Wilco love their older material as much as their diehards do.
The dynamic ‘Misunderstood’ – building from Tweedy’s strum and vocal in isolation to its stunning, relentless hammering climax (“Nothin’! Nothin’! Nothin’!”) – is an early highlight.
The Woody Guthrie-penned ‘California Stars’ (from the Billy Bragg-fronted Mermaid Avenue sessions) is another gem, while the one-two of the Rolling Stones stomping of ‘Monday’ and ‘Outtasite (Outta Mind)’s frayed pop finish the entire concert on a delirious rock high.
There’s a healthy smattering of their eighth and latest LP The Whole Love throughout too, starting with the slow-burning, textural ‘Art of Almost’ which, opening the show, devilishly displays the individual abilities of each of Wilco’s six members, but more importantly, their brilliant, road-hewn synergy.
There’s the inventive but robust drumming of Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline’s soul-rattling guitar solos, multi-instrumentalist duo Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen’s many, many contributions. And bassist John Stirratt – looking even fuzzier than frontman Tweedy – keeping the whole unit threaded with his steadfast bass work.
Together, they’re a band who wholly believe that their catalogue is an entity that best exists by being brought to vibrant life each night, and not always in the same arrangement.
A laidback, acoustic take of ‘Spiders (Kidsmoke)’ isn’t so shocking for cutting back nearly two-thirds of its angular, relentless Krautrock, but more for the fact that it makes just as much sense in its new context.
Whether they’re at their most fiery (the wiry, anguished ‘At Least That’s What You Said’, a rollicking ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’) or their most accessibly abstract (the antiquated charm-come-psychedelic soundscape of ‘Capitol City’), they deliver at every turn.
‘Impossible Germany’ even earns a standing ovation, thanks to Nels Cline’s passionate, intense guitar solo. Moving from melodic licks to spidery, fret-scaling shred, then back out into trilling over the twin-guitar melodies of the coda; its stirring stuff and evidence that the sextet’s power is not just in their resonant songwriting, but also their seamless interaction in performing it.
Wilco’s career is as much, if not more, about their night to night revelry as it their growth from album to album.
Tweedy is the central reminder of the power of a few well-spun chords and words, but it is the flexibility and sophistication of the unit as a whole that sets them apart from their peers into the upper echelons of the world’s greater touring institutions; a live show that is always an experience, not an obligation.
It’s a spirit best felt by Wilco’s acolytes during a line in ‘Misunderstood’ that continually draws whoops of knowing appreciation ever since it first graced ears in 1996: “You still love rock n roll.” Damn right.