The Palace Theatre stage was set softly with fake trees lining the edges, three giant rugs covering the floor, and a painted country scene as a backdrop.
But this was a Wilco show, so that softness was deceiving.
Rolling off the Star Wars tour right into the Schmilco tour, Wilco have parked at the Palace for three sold-out shows this week. At the first of these, last night, the band began with two quieter songs, “You Are My Face” and “Cry All Day,” though even Wilco’s ballads have a rock and roll edge. But within six minutes the band erupted into the first of its stormy, dissonant crescendos, as bright spotlights targeted the audience directly to make the experience even more overwhelming.
Though the rest of the band was deep in the music, Jeff Tweedy -- in his regular uniform of denim jacket and beige ranger hat, his hair in two braids -- seemed somewhat removed at the start. Toward the end of “Misunderstood,” after he repeated the lyrics, “I’d like to thank you for nothing, nothing, nothing at all,” a man in the audience yelled, “Something!” When the song ended, Tweedy gave him the finger. It felt tense.
Not till midway through the set, after “Impossible Germany,” did Tweedy address the crowd. “How ya doing St. Paul?” he asked. “It’s good to be here. You guys are rowdy. That’s Nels Cline, he’s a gentleman.” Something switched on and the singer’s typical wit and humor were now engaged. He asked a woman wearing bunny ears the obvious question: “What’s with the bunny ears?” We couldn’t hear her response, but it seemed to satisfy Tweedy, who said “Mmm, good talk.”
For two hours, Tweedy, Cline, Pat Sansone, Glenn Kotche, John Stirratt, and Mikael Jorgensen crisscrossed between 26 songs from 10 studio albums, putting the Wilco stamp on all of them. As usual, the set was cohesive and visceral – the music enters your ears and your skin and physically alters you for the length of each song.
As any fan knows, live Wilco and recorded Wilco are very different things, and Nels Cline is a big reason why. Not only does a live setting give the guitarist more room to flex his improvisational technique, but the sight of his instrument becoming an extension of his body, with Cline contorting in tandem with the sound he produces, is mesmerizing.
Before “Box Full of Letters,” Tweedy announced that Wilco’s first album, A.M., is being re-released with “extra stuff, if you’re into that. This next song is on it.” He paused, then joked, “It’s always been on it.” And at the conclusion of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” Kotche stood on a chair behind his drum set, lifting his arms triumphantly toward the sky as the other guys raised their instruments as if to toast him.
On the last song of the set (before the double encore) Tweedy ditched the guitar, hiked up his pants (they’d been sagging), and with a considerable theatrics performed “Hummingbird” with a lounge singer’s demeanor.
After a four-song encore, the band returned for one more. “See you tomorrow night?” Tweedy asked, then launched into “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” And he wasn’t holding anything back.
Critic’s bias: If it’s not obvious, I’m a fan. I’ve seen them six times this year, not counting last night’s show or Friday’s, when I’ll be back at the Palace. And yes, if someone offered me a ticket for tonight I would go.
You Are My Face
Cry All Day
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
At Least That’s What You Said
If I Ever Was a Child
Someone to Lose
Bull Black Nova
Box Full of Letters
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
The Late Greats
Random Name Generator
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Outtasite (Outta Mind)