Wilco, Roundhouse, London
The masters of reinvention are still inspiring a whole lot of love
Thursday 03 November 2011
When Wilco's Jeff Tweedy recently welcomed the term dad-rock, it seemed to confirm the argument that Wilco are now at ease in the trad-rock road's middle. You can see where some get that idea from, but it's one their London return incinerates. Introducing a gorgeous "Jesus, Etc.", Tweedy apologises for his tantrum at a 1997 London gig, distancing himself from the firebrand he once was. Wilco exhibited classicist tendencies on Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the Album), follow-ups to the "avant" albums that served to trash their alt-country reputation, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. But this show finds them revelling in their ability to harmonise experiment with simplicity, a strategy of focused virtuosity that fairly crackles with purpose and possibility.
The Chicago band's new album, The Whole Love, is their eighth, at which point many bands succumb to playing their biggest album on tour. But Wilco flaunt their flair for reinvention on the opener, "Art of Almost", where electronic pulses underpin Tweedy's warm vocals. That cluster of contained electro-country contradictions reflects the dynamics within the six-piece, who play as one in a mutual embrace of adventure. Glenn Kotche's power-house percussion, John Stirratt's nimble bass and improvisation maven Nels Cline's scorching guitar splinter, coalesce then splinter again. The between-song segues alone are heart-stopping: when the closing squall of Yankee Hotel's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" glides intuitively into Wilco (the Album)'s sadly beautiful "One Wing" – avant and classicist Wilco artfully straddled – a collective swoon sweeps the venue.
Such dazzling musicianship could lapse into indulgence, but Wilco know that restraint can equal a roar for impact. "One Sunday Morning", The Whole Love's bliss-folk highlight, rolls on for 12 gentle minutes that mesmerise no less than the krautrock blitzkriegs of mid-2000s Wilco. When they do let rip, they don't let rip by halves: on "Impossible Germany", the needling guitar-off between Tweedy and Cline proves almost exciting enough to reacquaint all attending with their inner air guitarist.
Almost half the set comes from The Whole Love, but Wilco's audience relish the new. Vintage cuts include the spiky power-popper "A Shot in the Arm", which concludes the gig in cacophonous style. It's Tweedy's climactic cry of "What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore" that speaks loudest, however. In a retro-fixated industry, Wilco dare to embrace change as a constant, at ease only because they know the road ahead is wide open.
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