Wilco, Astoria, London

Rock gets its voice back
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The Independent Culture

Jeff Tweedy has a wonderful voice. There was a space to be filled between Neil Young and (the former Lemonhead) Evan Dando, and Tweedy fills it. A nightmarish year of migraines, nausea and addiction to painkillers, culminating in a spell in rehab earlier this year, seems to have done no damage whatsoever. When that easy lilt comes out of that sweet face, singing, "I'm all emotion" - on "Theologians", from the Chicago outfit's acclaimed new album, A Ghost is Born, nothing could be easier to believe.

Jeff Tweedy has a wonderful voice. There was a space to be filled between Neil Young and (the former Lemonhead) Evan Dando, and Tweedy fills it. A nightmarish year of migraines, nausea and addiction to painkillers, culminating in a spell in rehab earlier this year, seems to have done no damage whatsoever. When that easy lilt comes out of that sweet face, singing, "I'm all emotion" - on "Theologians", from the Chicago outfit's acclaimed new album, A Ghost is Born, nothing could be easier to believe.

And that voice, still, is the essence of Wilco. Much has been made of the band's forays into experimental rock territory, and, sure, there are weird sounds on both A Ghost Is Born and its 2002 predecessor, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Some of these are reproduced tonight, and some of the songs feature howls of noise that probably don't belong to the alt.country category in which Wilco traditionally find themselves. But really, what they play is country-tinged rock. There is even a certain plinky-plonky, pub-rock feel underlying songs such as "Handshake Drugs". Leftfield sounds have not replaced that sturdy base - it is still up to the lyrics, vocal melodies and lead guitar fireworks to transcend it. Tonight, by and large, they do so very convincingly.

What the experimental leanings have done is to lend Wilco a certain grandeur. The band now have a bigger sound, but it comes across crystal-clear live: nothing in tonight's show sounds remotely fuzzy. Tweedy's lyrics, especially the latest ones, are rich and evocative without being syrupy. They deserve to be backed by several layers of acoustic and electric guitars and keyboards. Many alt.country bands are obsessed with the bluesy, storytelling tropes of traditional American music, or interested only in sounding either obscure or funny. Yet Tweedy writes metaphor-heavy lyrics that look poetic on the page and also make immediate sense. "Hummingbird", for example, ventures forth into "the deep chrome canyons of the loudest Manhattans". Lyrics at once so heartfelt and so subtle seem perfectly to justify the spasmodic twitching and shaking in which Tweedy indulges during the guitar breaks at the end of several numbers as if he were getting electric shocks from the thing.

Elsewhere, the lyrics are simpler, relying on the juxtaposition of sublime melodies with very unpleasant thoughts - "I dreamt about killing you again last night/ And it felt all right to me," Tweedy croons on "Via Chicago" from 1999's summerteeth - one oldie among plenty in a set that lasts for almost two hours.

The songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are more inclined to address wider issues in society, but always with the same bittersweet irony. Nine songs in, for "War on War", the band step up a gear. As he breezes though the song's charming chorus, "You gotta learn how to die", Tweedy really looks as though he's enjoying himself. By the end of the evening's umpteenth encore, he appears quite elated. Ah, the healing power of sweet, sad songs...

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