At the core of my music taste is a carefully selected collection of indie rock bands, most of whose best works are contained between the years 1994 and 2005. Wilco is a sacred inhabitant of that list, and similar to each of those artists that I’ve had the opportunity to see live, there’s always a concern as to whether or not the experience will fall short of the studio prime that we’ve become accustomed to. After all, it is the pervasive shadow of canonical masterpieces such as Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A ghost is born through which the concert-going public is inclined to view the entirety of Wilco’s modern discography. On a rainy Friday night, however, the same group of aging, bearded men that once wrote “Jesus etc.” walked on stage and emerged from the shade of their past work, met with triumphant adulation of their recent 2019 album, Ode to Joy.
The band’s setlist began with “Bright Leaves:” a slow, resonant tune off of Ode to Joy, characterized by its unwavering drum part and bursts of echoing, melodic guitar. The song opened the night with a mystifying atmosphere of suspense, and as they transitioned to two recognizable Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tunes, a dramatic catharsis swept across the audience, who were now fully primed to embrace the breadth of the band’s catalogue.
The band’s fifth song was another off of Ode to Joy, “One and a Half Stars”, which began with a soft, somber atmosphere, before erupting into a noise jam that instantly manifested into a wave of intoxicating euphoria. In moments like these, of which there were several throughout the show, Wilco really captured the essence of what merits their praise as modern legends. The emotional narratives they’re able to convey over the course of just one song are unparalleled, and render their catalogue a collection of brilliant stories as well as songs. Moments when the slow, peaceful introductions of their songs transition into loud, passionate guitar solos represented the high points of the night, evoking an energy that even their studio work couldn’t quite capture. The band’s performance of “Hummingbird” was another standout effort, during which layers of instrumentals diverged from a simple piano part, and coalesced into a cinematic crescendo that produced some of the loudest applause of the night.
Even as a fan well-rounded in my knowledge of their discography, Wilco’s signature hit, “Jesus etc.,” struck an emotional chord with me, and aside from their encore, represented the emotional peak of the night. As ecstatic as the audience was every time that guitarist Nels Cline burst into one of his gritty, cathartic solos, nothing surmounted the emotional gravity of hundreds of heads bobbing in unison to a song which every fan knew the words to. The band played a total of 26 songs, encompassing a captivating two and a half hour setlist. There was little disparity in excitement between Wilco’s contemporary catalogue and their “vintage classics” from years prior—the energy of the audience never faltered, and the transitions between recognizable tunes and new songs didn’t stand out as they often tend to for any band that has made music for 25 years.
Throughout the course of the night, the spotlight was trained on frontman Jeff Tweedy. In addition to a spirited vocal performance, Tweedy actively engaged with the audience, letting his sense of humor shine in between songs. He maintained a funny, coherent, pseudo-standup routine during which he made fun of a group of men sitting at the front of the audience. After demanding that they get off their phones, Tweedy chastised the cans of light beer in their hands: “It’s Friday, get yourself a real fucking beer!” Towards the end of the show, Tweedy prompted the audience “to pretend we went off stage,” to avoid the lengthy formalities of an encore. At that point, Wilco played “California Stars,” an homage to their humble beginnings as folk musicians, whose artistic endeavors acted as the boilerplate for an explosive career of neverending innovation.
Although Wilco were brought to Boston as headliners to the Boch Center’s Folk and Americana series, the band transcended their omnipresent designation as a folk band. To call Wilco a folk band is to superficialize the complexity of their discography. At times, they do embrace their lighter, more acoustic side. But some of their most incredible work, including Ode to Joy, is more evocative of Pavement or Radiohead than americana. That night, the band’s dazzling setlist captured their ability to develop a wide-variety of sounds over the course of their career, illustrating an accurate and often elusive portrayal of what truly embodies Wilco.