Wilco at the Palladium: A review of night one of three in Los Angeles
About halfway through Tuesday night’s Wilco show at the Palladium, the first of three in Los Angeles this week, founder and lead singer Jeff Tweedy pulled a little rock star maneuver. Attempting to engage with the sold-out crowd after a lilting version of “Jesus, Etc.,” one of the band’s softer songs, Tweedy pointed to the left side of the packed dance floor and politely, in his best Sunday school voice, requested that the attendees make some noise. They did.
He complimented them, fully aware that by engaging in such a manner he was assuming a classic role -- leader of a rock band in between songs in the middle of a concert. With apology and irony in his voice, Tweedy then challenged the other half of the historic Hollywood venue to act out the part they had cast themselves in -- Wilco fans -- by making louder noise. They complied.
Tweedy continued the charade for a couple more rounds as the five other men of Wilco -- one of the great assemblages of rock 'n' roll talent on any stage anywhere (bassist John Stirratt, guitarist Nels Cline, percussionist Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, and keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen), swapped out instruments and tapped on pedals. He pointed to the left and the right sides of the Palladium -- but then abruptly stopped and scolded the fans on their participation.
“We’re not doing that, OK people?” Tweedy said with feigned terseness. “That’s beneath us.” The band then dove into a weird, ethereal version of "Capitol City," from their most recent album, “The Whole Love,” and spun the circular room with a weird circus romp that sounded like a UFO version of the band’s earlier self -- which two decades ago rose as the underdog offshoot of a cult alt-country act from Belleville, Ill., called Uncle Tupelo.
Such is the dilemma for the self-aware 21st century Tweedy, who’s dodged aesthetic ruts over the years by trusting his intuition, curiosity and willingness to reimagine the whole notion of Wilco. He’s the leader of a rock band, but could never play the part of a David Lee Roth figure -- nor would he seem to want to. But that doesn't mean that he and his band don't enjoy to rock and/or roll.
With an eye for talent, a keen understanding of the music's history and its myriad possibilities -- along with a genetic disposition for flat-out Midwest rock (a searing take on “Born Alone”) and blue-collar twang, an improviser’s love of chance operations, and an artist’s love of intelligent design (not the religious kind) -- Tweedy fronts a band able to pack so much unspoken context into its riffs, solos, three-part harmonies, prog-rock diversions and rhythmic runarounds, that they can sound like whatever band from whichever era whenever they want.
Blink once on Tuesday night and you could hear echoes of Bob Dylan and the Band, trading guitar lines with organ hum; the next moment the band was in Krautrock mode, conjuring the spirit of Can and pre-robotic Kraftwerk jams; there were the chunky riffs of Uncle Tupelo still buried within songs Wilco played, such as “I Got You (At the End of the Century),” from its early artistic statement of purpose, “Being There.” The whirlwind "Rubber Soul" pop of the transformative follow-up album, “Summerteeth,” was on display in “Shot in the Arm” and “I’m Always in Love.” And the three-guitar freakout at the end of “Impossible Germany” sounded like New York guitar band Television if the Minutemen’s D. Boon had jumped onstage to join in.
For such a round venue, though, the acoustics at the Palladium are notoriously flat; nuance tends to get lost, and though drummer Kotche was kicking out amazing patterns and pounding railroad spikes into his snare, at times his work was eclipsed by Cline, Sansone and Tweedy’s tangled distortion and Jorgensen's oft-crazed synthesizer clusters.
But on Tuesday night this potential acoustic weakness was a strength; the volume and the venue made the whole experience feel way more ragged, dirtier, more punk, than the band has sounded at other venues, and the way the 4,000 capacity room responded to Wilco suggested a wonderfully monophonic version of the ultimate stereophonic band. Coupled with so many fans packed so tightly together, heads bouncing, singing along, shouting out requests, you'd have almost thought this was a real deal -- and absolutely unironic -- rock concert. And maybe it was.
-- Randall Roberts (@liledit)
Jeff Tweedy of Chicago band Wilco performs to a sold-out crowd at the Hollywood Palladium. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times.