For the majority of its 18 year existence, Wilco has been fueled by a desire to constantly deconstruct and redefine its sound, resulting in a handful of masterpiece albums and numerous personnel shifts. Each new recording seemed to be a snapshot of an ensemble continuously in flux, content to delve further and further into music’s more abstract realms. But then something unexpected happened– the band stopped its reckless exploration. A permanent six-piece lineup calcified and Wilco became a sort of jam band institution unto itself– a major commercial force with the credibility to get away with any musical faux pas.
Touring in support of its eighth studio album “The Whole Love,” Wilco performed to a sold-out crowd at the gloriously-preserved Los Angeles Theatre on Friday night– capping a trio of performances in the Los Angeles area. Beginning with an acoustic-lead version of “Less Than You Think,” singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy quickly revealed the fundamental change in his group– an air of impenetrability. In its original incarnation, “Less Thank You Think” was the most delicate and vulnerable of Wilco experiments: a quivering ballad set amid piano drones and hammered dulcimer. Now it is played with a chugging guitar and an almost workmanlike sense of efficiency. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was given a similarly saccharine arrangement, gutting its motorik chug in favor of a breezy ’70s soft-rock sheen.
The setlist, which has shifted constantly throughout this tour, relied heavily on newer material and general crowd-pleasers. The blue-eyed soul of “Side With The Seeds” and “Hate It Here” received rapturous audience ovations while stone-cold classics “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “A Shot In The Arm” brimmed with the undeniable magic of the group’s peak period. Many of the new songs were pleasantly arranged if a bit boring in terms of musical dynamics. One notable exception was “Art of Almost,” a magnificent, hiccupping blend of syncopated drums, organ and feedbacking guitar that effectively utilized each bandmember’s varied skill set.
As a six-piece, Wilco has come to rely heavily on the services of guitar virtuoso Nels Cline. Live, Cline doesn’t quite know when to say when in terms of soloing. He crams notes into literally every vacant portion of the songs, conducting jaw-dropping yet strangely unnecessary sonic incantations. Many of these Van Halen-cum-Verlaine solo moments whipped the crowd into a frenzy, but felt like cheap tricks when compared to the understated elegance of the songs themselves.
The evening was capped by a five-song encore, which included a beautifully subdued rendition of “Reservations” and a victory lap through “I Got You (At The End Of The Century) and “I’m a Wheel.” After 18 years, it is clear that Wilco has found its audience, but it is equally clear that the band is no longer at the vanguard of popular music — perhaps they don’t want to be.