First Night: Wilco, Astoria, London

Starting over again is the making of a maverick
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Wilco's Jeff Tweedy imprinted himself on my consciousness five years ago when, offended by the polite response of a British crowd to his band's best efforts, he jumped off the stage and shook each individual within reach until they danced, or ran.

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy imprinted himself on my consciousness five years ago when, offended by the polite response of a British crowd to his band's best efforts, he jumped off the stage and shook each individual within reach until they danced, or ran.

That impetuosity and hatred of half measures has followed him through his career. His previous band, Uncle Tupelo, mostly invented the alt.country genre which now rules leftfield American rock, but he and partner Jay Farrar were involved in a bitter split.

Wilco then took that template on with double albums of melodic, emotionally damaged country pop. Last year that successful formula too was torn up when he delivered a third album Yankee Alpha Foxtrot to an aghast label. The songs were more heartbroken than ever, seeming to speak to his country's post-11 September numbness. Not always sympathetically.

And this time, the music had taken a radical left turn, into electronic ambience. Wilco's label wouldn't release it, two of the band quit. But Tweedy wouldn't budge. And now the album's out, to rapturous acclaim. And, it's soon apparent, this latest brush with adversity has been the making of this maverick.

For all their songwriting skill, the old Wilco line-up were never much cop live. But charismatic new personnel, and the challenge of playing Yankee Alpha Foxtrot's subtle strangeness, has transformed them.

"I am Trying to Break Your Heart,'' chimes and string sounds float in the air, while Tweedy picks out the words of another broken love song. When clattering drums and punching guitars are added, this spartan electronic symphony takes on the roar of planes much too close to the ground, with all that implies.

"War On War'' is a more more brutally unfashionable take on the current conflict: "You've gotta lose, you've gotta learn how to die,'' in Tweedy's words.

"Ashes of American Flags'', which sees him limp across stage as if wounded, then play electric guitar with rapt and roaring abandon, allows no easy analysis.

Older Wilco songs benefit from this new, open attitude too, their traditional rock arrangements sounding fresher, more confident and dynamic. "She's A Jar'' is stretched out into relaxed country soul, still you start to remember how dark Wilco have always been, and what the song's devastating last line is. Tweedy sings it with more ruthless clarity than ever: "She begs me not to hit her.'' The cheer at the end, uneasily, could mean anything.

"Reservations'' offers one more glimpse of the contrariness that has got Tweedy this far. Bathed in blue light, he lets one dissonant chord build, and squats on the floor, testing our patience. We pass, and the roar when he leaves shows just how loved this awkward America customer has become.

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