|Photo by Zoran Orlic|
Let me take you back to the first time I saw Wilco.
It was in 2001 at The Pageant, the band’s first performance at the venue they’ve now played seven times over the past decade, all of which have been sellouts. But their first time, well, it was a little weird. Jay Bennett had recently left the band, and their album they were supposed to be touring behind, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, had been rejected by Reprise and was streaming for free on their website. Everything was changing, and when Jeff Tweedy sang “Oh, I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you” near the end of the show, his words stuck out as an honest gesture that described the evening perfectly.
It was their first performance in St. Louis in four years, and Wilco’s absences here have been debated time and time again: why don’t they play here more often? I won’t get into that, mainly because I’m sure the answer is complicated and most likely has nothing to do with St. Louis. But, when do they play a show here, expectations are high. And we all know that hype is usually a recipe for a huge letdown.
Wilco in St. Louis, though? Nope, it’s never been a letdown. And Tuesday night’s performance at the recently re-opened Peabody Opera House was, once again, another stellar chapter in the band’s live history.
It’s not often a band can open up a show with a soothing, twelve-minute acoustic number like The Whole Love’s “One Sunday Morning” and keep a crowd’s attention. Wilco did that, calmly and beautifully, taking its time to deliver the song about loss and regret. The scene they created shifted gently into “Poor Places,” a performance that ended with a couple minutes of noise, which segued into “Art of Almost,” leaving Jeff Tweedy without a guitar and simply his voice. The lights flashed heavily with every thud of sound, and Nels Cline delivered the first of his many fractured and wild solos.
If you’ve seen Wilco live, you know that Cline is a big part of the band’s energy. The man delivers, show after show, toying with his instrument — his hands seemingly vibrating at times to produce clean or dirty noise. During “Impossible Germany,” the guitarist completely took the spotlight for a few minutes, rocking out his best solo while Tweedy looked on with a smile. Cline is clearly in a league of his own, and you only need a few seconds to realize his greatness.
This came after a hushed “Rising Red Lung,” a frantic take on “Bull Black Nova,” and an always welcome “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” where drummer Glenn Kotche showed off his multitasking abilities. Later, during “Via Chicago,” the first encore, Kotche exploded three different times with a blast of noise, jarring the song’s lyrical story about killing someone in a dream. His actions made perfect sense, as if he were trying to wake everyone up from the nightmare being described in the song.
Of course, this was St. Louis, so we got the Wilco/Uncle Tupelo songs that made references to the surrounding area. From where I was sitting, “New Madrid” had people, including myself, singing along: “All my daydreams are disasters/ She’s the one I think I love.” “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Casino Queen” were also delivered during the eight-song encore, which featured two songs with opener Nick Lowe — “36 Inches High” and “I Love My Label.”
Ten years ago at The Pageant, Wilco closed with “I Got You (At the End of the Century).” On this night, they concluded with “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” with Tweedy and Co. singing “you won’t see me now/ you don’t want to anyhow.“
Oh, but St. Louis doesn’t have to see you to remember you, Wilco. We’re always thinking of you, forever outta sight, never outta mind.