Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy is a smart man. At his band’s concert for the Northwestern audience in Patten Gym on Friday night, he said the perfect thing to get the crowd’s attention.
“Would it kill you guys to study on a weekend?” he asked between songs.
“We don’t go to Harvard!” responded someone in the audience.
“Well … maybe that’s why you don’t go to Harvard,” Tweedy returned.
The comment brought a chorus of “ooohs” and laughs from the floor. But most students at the A&O Ball didn’t need a reference to NU’s traditional Ivy envy to be engaged in the show: Wilco’s performance was spectacular on its own.
After a set of decent but forgettable indie rock (which might have been more memorable if the vocals were intelligible) from French Kicks, Wilco’s six members took to the stage at 9 p.m. They eased into the pretty and slow beginning of “Impossible Germany,” off their new album Sky Blue Sky, which is due out Tuesday. Midway through the song, guitarist Nels Cline started working his fretboard in a furious solo, joined soon by multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and Tweedy, both on guitar. The song built to a gorgeous climax and then dissipated.
Many of the songs during the rest of the nearly two-hour show mirrored the dynamism of the opener: Quiet intimate moments would melt into soulful guitar squalls and erupt into head-bobbing riffs, then either come to full-stop or dissolve into noise. The musicians played impeccably and remained upbeat the entire time, and the set list hit most of Wilco’s career highlights.
The show opened with three songs from Sky Blue Sky, and then mostly cycled through material from 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost is Born. A few more Sky Blue Sky tracks appeared towards the end of the show, and the band also played a fantastically danceable version of “Shot in the Arm” off of 1998’s Summerteeth.
Tweedy kept the show easy-going and fun with feisty banter between songs. The first sign of his sarcastic mood came with the first comment of the night: “Hi, this is our first show. Ever.” He then chastised the crowd for looking “like crap” at an event billed as a ball. Later, he tried to be complimentary by saying that living at NU was like living in a wedding cake (he had to clarify that that was a good thing, though he wasn’t sure exactly what it meant).
When an audience member called out a request for “Free Bird,” Tweedy didn’t seem pleased, though he kept smiling.
“Really, did someone just say that?” he said. “That’s like 10 minutes in the penalty box for you.”
He then pointed out someone who didn’t belong in the penalty box: a fan front and center whom Tweedy said knew the words to every song that night.
The best moments of the night came when Tweedy’s easy-going manner mixed with the band’s muscular sound. “Kingpin,” the lone track played from 1996’s Being There, may have been the show’s highpoint. Tweedy changed the opening lyrics to “I want to be your kingpin, living in Evanston,” the band rocked out and at the end, Tweedy talked the crowd into participating in the song’s call-and-response coda. After the audience’s first scream, Tweedy egged them on by mentioning an earlier topic: “That didn’t seem very Ivy-League to me.” The audience just laughed and screamed louder. When Wilco then walked off stage for the second time that night, the entire crowd cheered for them to come back to do an encore. Ivy-League rejects must be suckers for taunting.
Tweedy’s jabs were of course all in good fun. Before closing the show, Tweedy offered some encouragement.
“I would say we’ve had a wonderful time, a time full of wonder,” he said. “You guys know you’re better than Harvard fans, so don’t worry about that.”
“Sky Blue Sky”
“You Are My Face”
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”
“Side With The Seeds”
“Shot in the Arm”
“Pot Kettle Black”
“Shake It Off’
“I’m the Man Who Loves You”
“At Least That’s What You Said”
“War on War”
“Hate It Here”
“The Late Greats”
“Heavy Metal Drummer”