Wilco is back!
Knoxville–and much of “Wilcoworld” around the globe–was abuzz when it was announced earlier this Spring that the iconic indie rock band would be reconvening in the East Tennessee city–home to the Tennessee Volunteers, the Smoky Mountains, and musically, the internationally lauded Big Ears Music and Arts Festival and Historic Tennessee and Bijou Theatre– after over 18 months on hiatus.
Tickets quickly sold out to the two-night stand at the Bijou Theatre and fans appeared thrilled to find out the band had arrived early in town to rehearse for what would turn out to be a longer tour–from Knoxville, they posted an announcement of a slew of dates across Europe and then back in the States at places like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville throughout the fall. To Wilco fanatics who’ve been missing the unique chemistry the group embodies onstage, it was exciting to say the least.
Sure, the guys were getting around. Jeff Tweedy was all over the place the past few years, touring behind his memoirs Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), his solo record “Warm,” playing with his son Spencer in their band Tweedy, and making appearances on shows like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s IFC sketch vehicle Portlandia, and Nels Cline led the Nels Cline 4 in exploring improvisation on “Currents and Constellations” as well as on other collaborations like his big band jazz program “Lovers,” which he performed at Big Ears with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and special guests in 2018. Glenn Kotche worked with the Ate9 Dance Company, composes, worked a multi-disciplinary project with actor Jon Hamm called “Fishing,” and taught his own clinics. Jon Stirratt led his side project the Autumn Defense and opened his own hotel, Tourists, in North Adams, Massachusetts.
The band has continued to diversify its offerings over the years with its Solid Sound summer music and arts festival up in Massachusetts and now is selling all-inclusive packages for its upcoming Sky Blue Sky winter festival at the Hard Rock Hotel and Resort in Puerto Adventuras, Mexico for January 2020. They’ve done reissues of several of their old albums, special singles and covers of songs like Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?” (popularized by Elvis Costello) for a Spotify Singles session.
But this summer and fall–starting with last night in Knoxville (and the plan is again tonight) the band seems to be all about just bringing it back to what they’re best known for–rocking their impressive catalogue of inventive, genre-bending folk-based, jazz-and-psychedelia-infused indie rock music for their rabid fans.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” Jeff Tweedy joked when he first spoke after performing opening number “Hell is Chrome,” in the Bijou the first night, under a lush hanging topiary set arrangement and swirling incandescent lights, in a warm, intimate room packed full of some of Wilco’s biggest fans in town–and from around the Southeast and beyond (we talked to folks outside who’d traveled from St. Louis for the show on the way in).
After “One Wing”: “Remember that one? We do…sorta. We’re gonna be remembering all night.” After I’m Always in Love”: “You haven’t been seeing other bands have you?” Tweedy was all effusive charm and playfully sarcastic quips rolled into one and seemed to be having a ball with it.
Tweedy and the group seemed loose and ebullient all night, swapping smiles and jokes and shaking the dust and rust loose, going for big signature jams on a variety of classics like “War on War,” “Either Way,” Company in My Back” and the always barn-burning “Impossible Germany” with Nels Cline’s impossible shredding and the ASMR-inducing full-band harmonizing solo section at the end, but also throwing in some newer stuff like “If I Ever Was a Child” from “Schilmco” (2016) and “Random Name Generator” from “Star Wars” (2015).
Tweedy and Cline must have a dozen gorgeous vintage guitars between them now–Tweedy played a Strat, Gibson SG, Fender Jaguar, Gibson acoustic and a Telecaster at different points in the night and Cline played a Les Paul, Danelectro, some type of double-necked electric and more. They both did some elegant finger-picking and some wicked shredding together at times. Stirratt and Kotchke as always were a solid rhythm section but not predictable or basic-they play with flavor and panache and have their own personality and groove in the songs. Stirratt’s signature harmonies simply make the part on many songs (like the backing parts of the choruses on “Heavy Metal Drummer”). Third guitarist Pat Sansone and keyboardist Michael Jorgenson add reliable extra textures, riffs-and with Sansone, another vocal layer as well.
Tweedy joked as the band went into the closer, “I Hate it Here” from the “Sky Blue Sky” album (2007), “This song is in no way about the place we are in…also, this is the part of the evening where it maybe has dawned on you that we will not be playing the song that you came to hear…there are pamphlets in the front,” he said to laughter, “but the only cure is to buy more tickets to more shows.”
The incredible thing, though, actually, about watching bands that reach Wilco’s tenure and stature is in a two-night stand like this one, they can play an impressive 20+-song set with no filler–all career-spanning highlights–and still have plenty of ground to cover the next night.
The band came back out strong with a hearty four-song encore set with golden oldies like “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” from second album “Being There” (1996), one of its probably top three most beloved songs “Jesus, Etc.” from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002), and two other hard-rockin’ classics from that same cherished album, “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” to close out the set to an ecstatic crowd that spilled out onto Gay Street to glow about the set before dispersing into the summer night.
For those counting, although the band did burn through some big ones (“we’d better leave some songs for tomorrow” Tweedy quipped at one point), the first night’s set still leaves a plethora of fan favorites from throughout Wilco’s career they didn’t play last night, like “Via Chicago,” “Hummingbird,” “California Stars,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Passenger Side,” and many more that are possibilities for tonight’s show. Also, a review of past two-night stand set-lists from the band reveals that they will sometimes repeat key Wilco classics for those who might have missed them the first night, and a few key songs are played at almost every single Wilco show, so while no promises can be made, that may be a predictor of some balance to the second night set.
Also, while both nights are technically sold out, during Night One, there were some folks we talked to outside who had bought extra tickets for friends who couldn’t get sitters or couldn’t attend for other reasons and were looking to sell extra tickets at face value or lower, so don’t absolutely count on it, but there may be potential to get into the Night Two show yet by coming by the Bijou a little early tonight.
As of about an hour after the show last night, at least four setlist.fm users had logged in to post their takes on the full-length official setlist the band played on Night One, which was in agreement with ours and went as follows:
- 1. “Hell Is Chrome”
- 2. “Whole Love”
- 3. “War on War”
- 4. “If I Ever Was a Child”
- 5. “Cry All Day”
- 6. “One Wing”
- 7. “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed”
- 8.”Either Way”
- 9. “Company in My Back”
- 10. “You and I”
- 11. “Impossible Germany”
- 12. “Born Alone”
- 13. “I’m Always in Love”
- 14. “Forget the Flowers”
- 15. “Someone to Lose”
- 16. “Remember the Mountain Bed”
(Billy Bragg & Wilco cover)
- 17. “The Late Greats”
- 18. “Locator”
- 19.”Dawned on Me”
- 20. “Random Name Generator”
- 21. “Hate It Here”
- 22. “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)”
- 23. “Jesus, Etc.”
- 24. “Heavy Metal Drummer”
- 25. “I’m the Man Who Loves You”
Enjoy and we’ll see you out at the Bijou Theatre, same time (doors at 7pm, show at 8), for night two of Wilco’s hotly anticipated return to the stage!
Review written by Luke Brogden