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Live: Wilco Braves The Elements In Central Park

Wilco w/Nick Lowe Central Park SummerStage Friday, September 23

Better than: Standing in one place for two hours in the rain in Central Park without Wilco.

The dudes from NYCTaper peer up at the steady falling rain and the umbrella perched over their microphones, worried that the drops' patter might turn up on their recording of Wilco's Friday night SummerStage show. The band hits the stage at 7 sharp in hopes of avoiding a major downpour (it only sort of comes), and as it happens, the hard drizzle provides a perfect ambient counterpoint to "One Sunday Morning (For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," the set's 12-minute opener.

The final song on the band's new The Whole Love (out officially on Tuesday), "One Sunday Morning" is stately and somber, with lyrics about (seems like) a son burying a father; a gracefully relaxed and too-short guitar coda that might be the most authentically Grateful Dead-sounding bit of music Wilco has yet written caps the song. With the rain, and the song's miniscule and finely controlled build, it is an entrancing opener.

Often compared to the Dead for their road-happy ways, little has changed about Wilco's live performances in the 10 years since they recorded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Glenn Kotche took over drumming duties. Despite the presence of tapers at nearly every Wilco gig, the Chicago sextet does very little onstage improvisation, and give or take the rain in the background and/or the Beavis-ian note-torrents added to older numbers by guitarist Nels Cline, the songs mostly sound like their recorded selves. By the second tune, The Whole Love's seven-minute first song "Art of Almost," the rain is drowned in a swell of string-synths and a hard bleep-supported beat that sounds (despite the cheapness of the comparison, this is true) like the start of a new Radiohead album.

The arrival of The Whole Love comes as a relief to those who found the band's last two discs slipping recklessly into blandness. The show, which features a grand total of three songs from WIlco (The Album) and Sky Blue Sky, is an evening-long reassurance that Wilco might be trying to step out of the road-middle they'd found themselves in. "Art of Almost" tries perhaps a bit too hard, replete with an effect that sounds like the crashing of thunder, Tweedy thrusting his guitar in time. Beyond this, and some please-stop-that-right-now-no-really windmills by Pat Sansone, the cuteness is kept to a minimum.

One might forget this when dry, but the right amount of rain can help make a concert pretty memorable. The set list comes peppered with old favorites like "Poor Places," "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" (still with that agitatingly cute fill-in-the-blank by Jeff Tweedy at the end of the last verse) and "Handshake Drugs," all played with fresh enthusiasm, and a hardy amount of new songs, including the aching quiet-folk of "Black Moon," the gospel-rooted "Born Alone," and the potential future singalong "Dawned on Me."

 

Throughout the two-hour-plus set, the rain pisses down constantly, and Wilco demonstrate their ability to put over modern blazer-rock better than any of the toothless/hookless/mirthless sensitivos in The National, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, and others—and they don't resort to Hornsbyisms, try to be U2/Springsteen, or add a fucking saxophone. More, they show off the reason why dedicated tapers might subject expensive gear to terrible conditions: the six musicians play together with dynamics that shift from spare to dense with equal grace. They write fundamentally traditional songs, often anchored with acoustic guitars, and manage to sound both like fresher, newer versions of themselves and like a wholly new band, especially as Kotche moves Tweedy's quieter moments into moody new places.

An audience member launches a bundle of glowsticks into the air. "Glowsticks, really?" Tweedy asks, clearly disappointed. "Has it come to that?"

Unfortunately, it probably has. Wilco long ago blurred into the culture; it might be circular logic, but lots of people like Wilco because Wilco is likable. For a band that can accurately be described as such, Tweedy & co. make a surprising amount of challenging music. Of course, it's up to each individual audience member to accept the challenge, or to just enjoy intentionally meaningful folk-rock on a rainy Friday night.

Critical bias: Can sometimes get down with intentionally meaningful folk-rock. Sometimes.

Overheard: Absolutely nobody around me singing the same lyric for Tweedy's fill-in-the-blank signalong on "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart." (Correct answer: "Hello.")

Random notebook dump: Nick Lowe opening set, great; solo "Peace, Love, & Understanding" needs little more reverb to sound like the Roy Orbison version.

Setlist: One Sunday Morning (For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend) Art of Almost I Might Poor Places Bull Black Nova I Am Trying To Break Your Heart Pot Kettle Black Impossible Germany Black Moon California Stars Born Alone Handshake Drugs Heavy Metal Drummer The Whole Love Standing O Passenger Side Dawned On Me Shot In The Arm -- Misunderstood Jesus, Etc. Walken I'm The Man Who Loves You Red-Eyed and Blue / I Got You (at the End of the Century)

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