Wilco have long held a reputation as a must-see live act, but despite the high anticipation heading into last night's (March 15) show at Toronto's Massey Hall, the band showed the poise of performance veterans, easing into the set and telling their story teasingly, bit by tantalizing bit.
Opening with a trio of cuts from their latest album, Schmilco, the band set the scene: the first number, "Normal American Kids," featured only lead singer Jeff Tweedy and lead guitarist Nels Cline, putting all eyes on the interplay between Tweedy's grounded vocals and Cline's frenetic riffing. Then, the rest of the band filed in, doling out plaintive folk rock while latecomers arrived. Compounded with the intricate, sprawling forest backdrop, it was easy to forget the wintry chill that lurked outside.
The next trio served to transition from the "getting to know you" phase to the revelation of Wilco's oddities: their peals of fuzz guitar ("Muzzle of Bees"), their spontaneous dissolves from composed playing to chaotic clatter ("I Am Trying to Break Your Heart") and, last but certainly not least, their penchant for a good ol' fashioned jam ("Art of Almost").
It was then, and only then, that Tweedy talked to the audience, opening with a wry barb: "How are you enjoying your relatively sane country?"
With all facets of Wilco deftly introduced, and in stunningly disarming order, it was time for the fireworks to begin.
While their more straightforward folk cuts allowed for everyone to breathe, it was the lengthy jams and rock crescendos that delivered the night's more explosive moments, thanks to the razor-sharp focus and skill from the entire sextet. Wilco's current lineup, now embarking on their 13th year together, are a crack team of musicians, both in their technical skill and penchant for wild experimentation. Drummer Glenn Kotche earned particular praise from the crowd every time he went full heavy metal, bashing everything in sight, casually deconstructing whatever track he was just playing before resuming regular play as if nothing had happened.
But Cline was the star of the night, shining brightest with his monstrous solo in live set staple "Impossible Germany." Both frenzied and calculating, the solo was the stuff of legend, with Cline taking his time slowly letting the riffing become more unhinged; where Kotche changed demeanour at the drop of a hat, Cline worked into it, slowly building from fun noodling to an engaging full-body experience. The crowd, whose inability to collectively decide whether to sit or stand had become Tweedy's chief banter target, made their decision then and there, launching into reverence on two feet, with effusive applause.
If there was one moment where Wilco's expertly curated setlist faltered, it was the post-solo afterglow, where they followed with another relaxed Schmilco cut, "We Aren't the World (Safety Girl)," which got the crowd sitting again. But Tweedy demonstrated his swift control of the crowd by quickly cajoling everyone back onto their feet. Great live acts are exceptional at playing and performing, and Wilco have become masters at both, without sacrificing their experimental leanings.
Much like how they gradually intertwined rock, folk and noise over the course of their career, they knew how to subtly draw the audience in over the course of the evening. Even with a new album to promote in Schmilco, the band economically spent their two-hour set showcasing all their strengths, covering as much ground as they could.
The night's four-song encore brought out fan favourite "Jesus, Etc." and closed out with Krautrock jam "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," during which they brought the crowd further into their world by elongating the bridge and teaching the crowd how to sing the song's rollicking riff. As Wilco had been doing all night long, they took their time making sure the audience got it right in both pitch and volume, letting everyone close things out together. It was an electrifying end to an excellent night.