Wilco mastered the art of juxtaposition during its Sept. 19 concert at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, combining gritty lyrics with upbeat melodies, heavy instrumentals with acoustic solos and emotional stoicism with flashes of poetic confession.
A sea of college kids in paperboy hats, mustachioed men in their late 20s and a few unexpected groups of older women and their bearded mates slowly trickled into the venue before the opening act took to the stage.
The mixed crowd, a combination of the original hipsters of 1980s’ underground rock, and the neo-hipsters who took inspiration from their independent spirit, showcased Wilco’s unique ability to cater to several generations, something that became evident when opening act Jonathan Richman sauntered onstage.
With his signature wide-eyed aloofness, the American singer in his early 60s immediately captured the audience’s attention with his conversational style and comedic appeal.
“Master of lights up there, could we have a touch of house lights on the audience please?” he said.
Drawing a strong influence from his ties with The Velvet Underground, Richman showcased his eccentric style with witty asides between verses and anecdotes that became lead-ins to the following song’s lyrics, creating a story through his set choice.
Not wanting to “overstay (his) welcome,” Richman and accompanying drummer Tommy Larkins exited the stage to a standing ovation after 35 minutes of playing time, but the crowd wasn’t ready to see them leave just yet, calling for an encore that a humble Richman modestly accepted. Not your average pump-up opener, Jonathan Richman was a daring yet not entirely surprising choice, matching Wilco’s style.
Frontman Jeff Tweedy and his band walked gingerly across the stage, stepping in time to the wild clapping of a full house. The blinding lights had a ghostly effect on their opener, “Misunderstood,” from the group’s sophomore album, “Being There,” while the crowd soaked up the heavy instrumentals and blazing drums.
Dressed in a jean suit and a tan fedora, Tweedy effortlessly led the band into their next song, “Art of Almost,” utilizing a heavy bass, lighter percussion and exploiting his melodic voice over a synthetic keyboard.
Despite the electronic vibe of many of its songs, it’s easy to get a feel for the band’s country background. Going on two decades old, Wilco was formed from the remnants of alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo.
With scores of concert tours under their belt, Wilco has conquered the somewhat tricky task of staggering a set list. Moving from the upbeat track, “I might,” to the mellow and nostalgic, “Sunken Treasure,” proves the band possesses no hesitation to switch it up.
“Rising Red Lung” was a whisper to the audience; Tweedy was letting them in on a secret: “Come listen to this / As intimate as a kiss.” He let them in on another secret as he announced, “I grew up here for 10 months. Thanks Tucson, for rearing me.” Sincerity and charisma are not only present in his guitar strokes, but ooze from his pores.
Artfully waiting until the middle half of performance to play the favorites, Wilco crammed 10 crowd pleasers into one jam-packed power hour.
Clearly a favorite of both the band and the audience, Wilco played a powerful rendition of “Jesus etc.,” providing more emotion live than could be heard on their album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
“I want some!” An audience member screamed after Wilco brilliantly played its song, “Handshake Drugs.” The song concluded with 10 seconds of shrill feedback.
Thanks to Tweedy’s witticism, audience members laughed off even the less subtle mistakes Wilco made during its appearance. When Glenn Kotche got caught in a passionate moment with his drum set and broke his sticks in a count off, Tweedy quipped, “He doesn’t even know his own strength,” leaving the audience breathless from laughing.
Wilco concluded its set with an odd choice from one of its earlier albums, “Summerteeth.” When Tweedy opened his mouth to sing the lines, “We fell in love / In the key of C / We walked along / Down by the sea / You followed me down / The neck to D / And fell again / Into the sea,” the audience fell for Wilco all over again.
After a lengthy encore that included the heartfelt, “Hummingbird,” band members stoically exited the stage one by one, leaving the audience with a mellow feeling, a heavy heart and lungs full of chords in the key of C. The audience breathed in the last sounds of Wilco: at times unfinished, a nomad’s paradise of wandering melodies.
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