The O2 Kentish Town Forum, London
August 30, 2023
TALKING TO MOJO RECENTLY, Jeff Tweedy spent some time explaining how Wilco’s fans had gradually embraced the band’s range and complexities. “The audience really feels integrated now,” he said. “We can play anything from any period in the band and there's a sort of a uniform appreciation. But ten years ago, you could tell if the audience was primarily made up of people wanting the countryish stuff or the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stuff. It would always feel like there were factions. I don't really get that as much anymore. It's really lovely.”
So it is at Wilco’s first London show in four years, a celebration of how far they’ve travelled in the last three decades, and how many people they’ve brought along for the ride. Nowadays, they’re even comfortable tackling the thorny business of Americana: a couple of songs from last year’s fine 12th album, Cruel Country – I Am My Mother and the gorgeous title track - turn up early in the set, sandwiched inbetween the first extended guitar workout of the night, Handshake Drugs, and the first selection from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. The former features vibrational lead from Nels Cline (the last time MOJO reviewed Wilco live, in Brussels 2019, this writer referred to him as “a kind of post-punk John McLaughlin”, and that seems just as valid tonight), the latter still feels like a perfect song constructed out of random improvised fragments. The radicalism is baked in.
Cruel Country, of course, is not quite so straightforward as labels of Americana or, indeed, Country might suggest. If Wilco’s setlist here is a generous litany of crowdpleasers that foreground their gracefully deployed virtuosity – the aforementioned Handshake Drugs, Side With The Seeds, Cline’s customary showcase Impossible Germany, a climactic Spiders (Kidsmoke) – Cruel Country also provides a new epic for the canon. Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull begins as a harmonious, insidious folk song of sorts, but in the background Cline is subtly bending notes, limbering up to blow the song somewhere else. Soon enough, they’ve elided into a jam, third guitarist Pat Sansone going head to head with Cline, that’s like a filigreed jazz Sonic Youth, or even – though one suspects they may not appreciate the comparison – the Grateful Dead. As they slip seamlessly back into the song, they could just have easily moved on to I Know You Rider.
The delays and complications of the last three years mean that bands find themselves touring old records even as new ones emerge, hence what could ostensibly be seen as a Cruel Country show is also one that prefaces a new Wilco album – Cousin, due in a month. Cousin is superficially a different kind of beast to Cruel Country: an “art-pop” record, laboriously tinkered with in the studio by the band and producer Cate Le Bon. It’s tantalising to imagine how layered new gems like Ten Dead and Sunlight Ends will be evolved live – glib comparisons to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may not be too far off the mark. But for now, just one has made it into the setlist – live performance number five of the straightforwardly lovely Evicted. It’s a pop song, more or less, and one which doesn’t sound out of place tonight in the environs of Hummingbird, Heavy Metal Drummer and You And I (an encore, with support act Courtney Marie Andrews subbing excellently for Feist).
Cruel Country and Cousin, though, are part of a bigger Wilco continuum fleshed out so eloquently in these 23 songs, a world that can also accommodate the spiky new wave of Random Name Generator, bruised singalong epiphanies like Misunderstood, and that spectacular Spiders (Kidsmoke), during which Tweedy skronks out in such a way that reminds you, once again, Cline may not be the most avant-garde guitarist in the band.
There’s something reassuring about it all, too, in how Wilco’s brilliance has been so reliable for so long: how these intensely personal songs have matured with both the band and their audience; how innovations and creative swerves can instantly find such logical places in their repertoire; how they never seem to have an off night. Around the time of Ode To Joy in 2019, Tweedy told this writer, “One of the things I think is strange about my antipathy towards rock music is that it's happening at the same time as I'm becoming more and more confident Wilco is a rock band unlike any other still walking the earth.” Here, for two more hours, was more grist to his mill.
Hell Is Chrome
I Am My Mother
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Side With The Seeds
Bird Without A Tail / Base Of My Skull
Random Name Generator
The Late Greats
Dawned On Me
Heavy Metal Drummer
A Shot In The Arm
Falling Apart (Right Now)
You And I (with Courtney Marie Andrews)
California Stars (with Courtney Marie Andrews and Macie Stewart)
Picture: Lorne Thomson/Redferns