Wilco has almost a tour but not yet. Last night’s show at Merriweather was terrific, don’t get me wrong. The Sunday night was beautiful under the pavilion’s hard-working Big Ass Fans, and going to any concert with hardcore music friend fans like Jim and Meghan could never go wrong. Friends Steve, Randy, Matthew, and Mary Beth were in the crowd, too, likely among many others who will surface today, and friend Mike and the NPR Music team were streaming the show live online. And after a fun and relaxed opening from Nick Lowe, Wilco gave a real good time.
But it’s always interesting to see a great band at the very beginning of a tour. After finishing the album, the band has enough time to practice the new stuff into submission and determine the basic frameworks for show setlist, pacing and mood. But that’s about all the band has time for. Doing some iterating on the framework? Giving it a good vetting? Tearing it up and starting over? No time. That’s what the tour is for.
So, the beginning of the show attacked us with the new album (and I like the new album a bunch, so that hit me well). The middle alternated between new stuff and older material that sought the same theme — the idea that love is confusing and messy but ultimately beautiful and so necessary: One Wing, Handshake Drugs, Box Full of Letters, and Via Chicago with all kinds of fucked-up, drum-heavy breakdowns. The end of show regressed into Being There mindlessness (awesome) rocking with Monday and Outtasite (Outta mind). We left smiling and feeling the beat, recalling different moments, early, middle and late. But centered? No. Which is a point about love the new album makes, that the center is elusive (an “almost”). But I don’t think the show intended as much.
Even when the middle sought thematic wins, the starting points for the songs were all over the map. The Times said the setlist approach was staking out broad territory, and I wouldn’t disagree. The growth of an empire, though — even an empire that loves you, baby — is awkward.
The natural antecedent of the new material is the Ghost Is Born album, but it’s a challenge to tie them together in concert. Where Whole Love examines the conflict of love and finds a positive answer, Ghost studies the same and finds ugliness and a painkiller-addled migraine. We only saw the lighthearted moment from Ghost last night, with Handshake‘s sing-a-long rock. But if the band is going to truly build around its fresh proposition and nail the show, they need to go there, and we need to give them time. Wilco’s happiness comes easy these days, and the last couple tours have shown so. But this new material goes further, trying to explain this late happiness, and a two-hour explanation takes work.