America’s best and hardest-working rock unit played a fitting, elegant, and raucous swan song to summer last Sunday night under a silvery full moon at the Santa Barbara Bowl. It took a few tunes to get going-that whole rapport-with-the-crowd thing getting in the way at the start of the set-but after a dulcet set by popster balladeer Richard Swift, who delivered a half dozen songs in a Harry-Nilsson-meets-Elvis-Costello-like tone, Jeff Tweedy (in great voice) and the revised Wilco lineup opened with two lyrical offerings from the lush new album, Sky Blue Sky. They hit pay dirt, though, with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which sailed past luxuriant to the band’s trademarked and surreally prickly undertones. And with that, the audience was theirs.
For those keeping score, Wilco played 22 songs in a set that lasted from about 8 p.m. to the stroke of 10, which included two encores and a group-clapping session that broke the band’s magnificently long version of “Spiders” up from an orgy of introspective psychedelia to a participatory group adventure. “If you can do this, you can do anything,” deadpanned Tweedy. “Build a pyramid for the poor. Who knows?”
The offerings went all the way back to 1994, although only three songs came from the magnificent first albums: “Too Far Apart” from A.M.; and “Misunderstood” and “The Lonely 1” from Being There, the most underrated rock album of the Clinton years. The bulk-but not all-of the tunes played Sunday night hailed from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and, unsurprisingly, the new record, with its odd combination of Jefferson Airplane guitars and neo-R&B numbers.
The choice moments from an altogether lovely night of organized noise were the unexpected beauties Wilco found in “War on War,” “Impossible Germany,” and A Ghost Is Born‘s “Hummingbird.” The crowd seemed to prefer the country-flavored hits, though, like “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” and who am I to argue?
After seeing them live, I can safely say that Wilco is one of the great chameleonic bands; they’re too old for the indie rock scene, yet both the hip young kids and the old alt-country rockers embrace them. Then again, the presence of old people, coupled with all this newfound lyrical clarity, seemed to nudge the band into the dreaded role of a classic rock outfit. But who needs categories? After this show, it’s best to just declare Wilco a fine blaze of funk and poetry with lots of old, weird Americana to boot.