Most of the WTMD staff flocked to West Virginia for All Good last weekend, leaving its interns with the heavy burden of rocking out to Wilco in Delaware. On their tour's East coast swing, Jeff Tweedy and company seemed to have snuck stealthily into Wilmington (tour bus nowhere to be seen), their sound stage like a fort in the middle of Frawley Stadium, primed for a night of guerrilla indie-rock-pop-alt-country. No one has ever seemed to know what to call their dextrous weave of styles, so it might be best to add Wilco (the genre) to Wilco (the band), Wilco (The Album), and Wilco (The Song).
And here the band seemed worthy of its own genre. At 3 o'clock on a scorching afternoon, they turned their sound check into a five song private concert for forty 40 of us WTMD listeners and interns. Tweedy , longtime Wilco maestro, lead singer and guitarist, cracked jokes between songs and took requests, including one for "Shake It Out" that had drummer Glenn Kotche pumping his fists. Five feet away from the stage, we watched Tweedy croon and Nels Cline work his spidery magic all over the frets of his (many) guitars. With their scraggly hair and ragged tee T-shirts, they looked like the members of my college house three months ago, the morning after a spectacular party, but as soon as they started playing, they were a rapid, seamless stream of sound, with an amazing knack for feeling smooth and jangly at once.
By the time of the official show at dusk, they had donned more dapper clothes and were sending out waves of lucid music, blending classics and new album cuts. Tweedy sang with his trademark wryness, sifting tones wistful, bitter, joyful, and bemused in song after song, dipping into every Wilco album since A.M. The self-assured ease of Wilco (The Album) rode alongside the restive tracks of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ("I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"), the plaintive tracks of Summer Teeth ("Can't Stand It") , and the spooky wanderings of A Ghost Is Born ("Spiders (Kidsmoke").
Tweedy and his comrades have become masters of tightly constructed, hook-laden, wildly catchy pop songs, as they showed again and again Friday night with "Wilco (The Song)" and "You Never Know," off the new album, along with classics like "Jesus, Etc.," "I'm the Man That Loves You," and the glorious encore surfacing of "Heavy Metal Drummer." In its soul, though, Wilco is a champion of epic instrumental breakdowns, which it treats like meandering crusades for higher feelings of wonder. It was these jams of fancy that were most entrancing Friday night, in "Impossible Germany" and "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," where Cline's and Tweedy's entangling riffs and wails felt like a trek through the entire American landscape, paced by the steady groove of the rest of the band.
The amazing thing about Wilco is that its double personality of well-crafted pop and sprawling experimentation never feels like a split personality, just the wide ranging of one of America's greatest bands.