Music: Live

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The Independent Culture
SUMMERTEETH, THE third, instalment in Wilco's quest to distil the early 1970s moment when American rock's explosive prime was replaced by pretty pop melodies is being justifiably lauded. Their melodic gift is now matched by singer Jeff Tweedy's new facility for lyrics of disaffection. But to those who saw them the last time they played this venue, Wilco will forever be defined by a spontaneous moment of rock'n'roll warfare, the exact inverse of Iggy Pop's notorious face-off with a crowd of riled Hell's Angels; the night Tweedy became so incensed with the reserve of a Sunday night London audience that he leapt into their midst and physically shook them into moving. This is their return to the scene of that crime.

As before, it's the sharp-featured Tweedy who provides stage presence. The reticent nature of his bandmates reminds you why that previous Empire crowd, like this one, only shuffled its feet. The band have improved, become more varied. Guitars squeal and harmonies spiral in the whirl of "Hotel Arizona", a Woody Guthrie song is turned into wired, crunching country. But still, the tension we hang on is: what will Tweedy do?

He offers no clue. When we clap along to "Red-Eyed and Blue", he laughs. But, clanging his guitar angrily at the next song's end, he seems to mime going through the motions. Finally, he speaks. "Was anybody here last time?" Scattered cheers. "I'm on medication now."

The rest of the show becomes an apologia for imagined sins. He says thanks so many times it's almost parodic, claims he's hardly dared speak into a microphone since, mock-threatens "I'm starting to get mad again" at a good-humoured heckler. Rock'n'roll as warfare has deteriorated into rock'n'roll as act of contrition. Needless as it is, it seems to ease the mood of everyone present, all the better to respond to the suckerpunch which sums up Summerteeth's new strengths: "She's a Jar". A steel guitar strokes upward as Tweedy sings this apparent love song with the lightest touch of hate, and the tension of its infamous, inevitable last line ratchets up with every soaring harmony, till, perfectly, he almost trips over it, lets it tumble awkwardly out: "She begs me not to hit her." It's the hint of darkness that has lifted their perfectly constructed pop songs into life. They're only a little nearer the equally mysterious chemistry needed to make those songs blossom on stage. Perhaps, in the end, they're too modest to match the parade of ghostly hellraisers they adore. At least Tweedy no longer needs to shake us by the throat as they try.