Arts & Entertainment, The Muse

Wilco will love you, baby

Wilco is a band that combines all of the best elements of American music into one six-member unit fronted by the mercurial Jeff Tweedy. The group has become synonymous with the label “Americana,” and Tuesday night’s performance at the Orpheum Theatre showcased a group with a wide-ranging well of songs and a deep connection to its audience.

An early set time and no opener allowed the band to jump in to “Wilco (The Song)” shortly after 8 p.m. The song, which is the first track off the band’s latest release Wilco (The Album) set the tone for the night with its chugging rhythms and chorus of “Wilco will love you, baby.” It’s a sentiment the band has been cultivating since its first album A.M. in 1995, and Tweedy was able to put it into words by cheekily naming both the song and the album after the band.

“Bull Black Nova” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” showcased the band’s rock side, with lead guitarist Nels Cline assuming an animated sidekick’s role, jumping around and crashing through guitar solos with youthful enthusiasm. In fact, as the show progressed, it became clear that Wilco is a group that is still in top form and that may only get better. With a back catalog of seven albums packed to the brim with the band’s vivid lyrics and complex arrangements, Wilco was able to pull tracks from across its repertoire and create an unpredictable set list that contained an unfathomable 39 songs. The band’s three-plus-hour show was delivered with no set break and only a brief pause for encore.

The show kicked into high gear with the song “Either Way,” a plaintive ballad of optimism that Tweedy and co. reproduced magically. The first track off 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, the song became a crowd favorite as soon as the album came out. “Handshake Drugs” received a huge roar from the crowd, with its calm, driving verse and epic, guitar-driven ending. Mid-song, Tweedy switched his acoustic guitar for an electric SG and pushed the song into overdrive, combining with Cline to produce a swirling climax that wound down into “Impossible Germany.” The three-guitar harmonies of Tweedy, Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone were interesting to watch as all three wove into the fabric of the arrangement.

Tweedy also took the opportunity to inform the crowd of Wilco’s first festival, Solid Sound, that they are hosting and headlining August 13-15. The festival will be taking place at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Each band member’s side projects will be there, and Wilco will be performing all three nights, the only East Coast dates on their summer schedule.

Midway through the set, a second drum set and keyboard were set up toward the front of the stage and the group switched into an acoustic set with the song “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Tweedy led the band through a rendition of “You And I,” a song that appears on Wilco (The Album) as a duet with Feist, and the bluegrass ramble of “Forget The Flowers” which showed off the group’s acoustic chops. Vocal harmonies from Sansone and bassist John Stirratt lent another dimension to the group as well, and combined with its atypical arrangements to produce a section of the show that remained fresh, even if it did cause about half the crowd to sit down in their seats. The raucous “I Must Be High” led the band back into electric territory and a final third of the set that kept getting better.

The thing about Wilco is that it does not have just one marquee song, yet it maintains a level of consistency that means every song is just as great as the last. Crowd favorite “Via Chicago” and the lyrically profound “Theologians” were used as mere buildups to “Jesus Etc.” Tweedy introduced the song as a competition, inviting the audience to sing it better than any other city on the tour. The crowd led the band through the first two verses and the first chorus before Tweedy jumped back in. The song received the biggest cheer of the night.

Every time the show produced one highlight that seemed to be the cue to end the set, the crew would return to the stage with new guitars for Tweedy and Cline and the group would kick start into another song. The rocking “Hate it Here” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” with its poignant lyric, “If I could you know I would / just take your hand and you’d understand,” were fitting ending songs as the set wound down.

Thirty-nine songs and more than three continuous hours of Wilco later, the audience poured out onto the streets with an extensive set to think about. With Tweedy’s assurances that the group loves “every member of every crowd we’ve ever had,” it seemed that the night had come full circle back to the band’s initial sentiment. After a night that produced some real magic, Wilco proved that they really do love you, baby.

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