(Wilco photo by Don Principe)
A stadium in the shadow of the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut used to be the place that tennis players tuned-up before heading to the US Open that starts the last week of August. But since remaking it into an outdoor music venue, the intimate setting has been transformed into the Westville Music Bowl.
Under a pleasant late summer night with a slight drizzle, it seemed like the perfect mid-size setting for Wilco that is out on their Cruel Country tour. Two days removed from his fifty-fifth birthday, front man Jeff Tweedy was loose and engaged as he led the band through a 22-song set that sneakily went past two hours.
Tweedy bantered about the subject of death and the self-indulgent pleasure he derived in writing lyrics to himself. But when a fan in the front rows seemed to complain about the night’s staid folky pace, Tweedy got ornery and began a short lecture, responding that there was nothing more punk rock than playing mid-tempo songs in a stadium. And to emphasize his point he exclaimed, “That’s punk rock….Bitch!”
Beneath the melodic hooks and night’s orderly pace, “Cruel Country” the title song of Wilco’s new album stood out, a biting indictment for the state of the nation. Tweedy also lamented in the two-minute “I Am My Mother” about the inherent prejudices that perpetuate through the generations and we struggle to overcome. Another new song “Hints” was a personal plea in a love song but it might as well have been about the country’s inability to coalesce in the middle.
Tweedy was flanked by guitarists Nels Cline and Pat Sansone who doubled on keyboards. With Nels on lap and pedal steel, Wilco could breeze through Tweedy’s psychoanalysis in “Lifetime To Find” set against a sardonic country wit. But when Tweedy donned electric guitars to help fuel the power pop punch of “Box Full of Letters” and Wilco created the closing trance of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” the stadium was transformed.
Wilco’s seductive opening of “Handshake Drugs” evolved into an ever-expanding jam showing off the able guitarists and summoning a cacophony of electronic noise that occasionally reared itself throughout the night against the hypnotic and softer melodies. Drummer Glenn Kotche drove the band all night and for all of their understated demeanor, the cast of Tweedy’s Wilco is defined by their their versatility and playing chops. There was plenty to like in the catalog from “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “Jesus, Etc,” “California Stars” and “Impossible Germany,” a set that drew upon almost every Wilco album.
The band’s three encores were a delight unto themselves. After running through the twangy galloping new song “Falling Apart (Right Now),” Tweedy reached back to Being There’s transcendent power pop “I Got You (At The End of The Century)” and the surprise of the night, the raucous “Kicking Television” This was no mid-tempo song and got closer to the punk ethos that Tweedy philosophized about earlier.
To be there to hear it played live for the first time in eight years, it was worth the night alone.