Wilco at Their Best

I may never forgive Wilco for not coming to Philadelphia on their tour promoting Wilco (The Album), which was just released last Tuesday. Sure, it’s a minor league baseball stadium tour – but what’s wrong with Camden’s stadium? Why can’t things be like they used to be when you played at Festival Pier?

But, like the any subservient partner in a one-sided relationship, I gave in and travelled to Wilmington, Delaware’s Frawley Stadium to catch the band’s set on an ideal Friday night.

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley band opened the night with a folky, classic rock infused set that wrapped up before the sun went down. Bright Eyes detractors would be wise to give Oberst’s most recent project a fresh listen – the band’s sound is surprisingly confident and tight. The group was at it best on bluesy folk romps, stomps and honks like “NYC – Gone, Gone” off the group’s first album, Conor Oberst.

Oberst took a back seat on a few songs to let band members take over lead vocals, yet it was clear he’s the ringleader of the six-piece group. During his own songs – and songs featuring other band members – Oberst organized and orchestrated, cuing various solos and vocal breaks throughout the set.

The band had a full sound, but with way too much bass. Many mid-range organ and acoustic guitar solos were lost to the drones and thumps for much of the set. In fairness, it’s got to be tough to get a good sound directly in front of the stage and hundreds of yards away in the stadium’s bleacher seating. Wilco’s set had the opposite problem – it could have been a lot louder.

Oberst’s set dragged on a bit too long, especially considering Wilco had a solid two-hours worth of songs waiting. But, he acknowledged he was in the presence of giants, at one point calling out, “What’s up with Wilco? Holy shit.”

Wilco finally took the stage after dark to the theme song from “The Price is Right.” Jeff Tweedy was as unassuming as ever as the rest of the band filled in around him, and somehow, drummer Glen Kotche was already drenched in sweat before the set even started.

The band managed to squeeze in a bunch of songs from its new album, opening with “Wilco (the song)” – which will undoubtedly be the bands opener for a long time to come. The new songs worked well live and the crowd seemed to respond to most of them, though that may be because Wilco started streaming the album on its website after the album leaked online. While some new songs like “Sonny Feeling” fell a bit flat, tracks like the Springsteen-inspired rocker “You Never Know” and “One Wing” are destined to become staples in the band’s live repertoire.

Yet almost to the song, Wilco’s most crowd-pleasing tunes last night came from Summerteeth, a testament to the band’s longevity and staying power – and just how awesome that album is. The set was heavy on A Ghost is Born and Sky Blue Sky tracks, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot curiously underrepresented.

Tweedy and company made no mention of the recent passing of former member Jay Bennett. It makes sense – in interviews leading up to the show, Tweedy was dismissive of Wilco’s role in Bennett’s life now – all these years later. Yet, for anyone who’s seen the documentary, I am Trying to Break Your Heart, hearing those YHF songs with no mention of Bennett’s untimely death seemed a bit strange.

The band’s vamps on songs like “Bull Black Nova” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” only sounded better live and when those songs finally transitioned into the heavier breakdowns, the payoff was that much more satisfying. A definite highlight of the show came when Tweedy broke into grungy, off-time riffs while the rest of the band shook and banged anything they could get their hands on before launching into “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”

Tweedy obviously took a back seat to lead guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone on guitar, but he seemed to be enjoying himself most when he was playing one of his instantly recognizable lines on stage. The power and huge potential for sound coming from three great guitarists was especially impressive on Cline-heavy songs like “Impossible Germany” and “Walken.”

Returning for a second encore (complete with a cameo from the Wilmington Blue Rock’s mascot, Mr. Celery), Wilco closed the night with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Hoodoo Voodoo” from the band’s time working with Billy Bragg recording the Mermaid Ave. albums. It was a great way to end the show – a deep cut from the Wilco archive with great sound, awesome guitar solos and sing-along vocals – Wilco at its best.