They didn’t play the song I wanted, but that’s OK, because the band was transcendent nevertheless.
I’ve never seen a bad show at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville, and for good reason: With around 800 seats in one of the most historic buildings in the city, it’s easily in the Top 10 best-sounding rooms in the Southeast, if not the whole country. For that reason alone, the six-piece rock band Wilco decided to use the Bijou as a launch pad for the group’s current European tour, and if last week’s two-night stand at the venue was any indication, fans across the pond are in for a treat, to put it mildly.
With every album, Wilco has proven itself to be one of the most resilient and dynamic rock acts in contemporary music. After the breakup of seminal alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy established Wilco, while his former Tupelo partner Jay Farrar launched Son Volt. Out of the gate, it appeared Farrar had the superior product; Son Volt’s debut, “Trace,” was a gorgeous record, while Wilco’s “A.M.,” released in 1995, didn’t venture far from the Uncle Tupelo framework.
Tweedy, however, was determined to defy expectations. Wilco’s sophomore effort, “Being There,” was a double album that began to take tentative steps outside of the standard Americana formula, a sound that Uncle Tupelo is credited with catapulting into the mainstream. “Summerteeth,” the band’s third release, was a straight-up psychedelic pop masterpiece, and in 2001, Wilco made headlines with the album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” The band’s label, Reprise, refused to release it, declaring it didn’t have enough commercial potential. Wilco got the record back and turned it around and sold it to Nonesuch — another imprint of Warner Bros., which also happened to be Reprise’s parent company. It was a genius business decision that paid off in spades, because “YHT,” released in physical form the following year, landed at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 charts.
Not only was it commercially successful, it was a critical masterpiece as well, claiming album of the year honors from the prestigious Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll along with a bag of accolades from dozens of other publications. Comparisons to Radiohead, the British-based rock ensemble known for similar musical explorations, have abounded ever since, and for good reason: With a core lineup that’s been in place since 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky,” Wilco has become more than just a Jeff Tweedy vanity project. Last week’s Knoxville shows were proof that as revered as Tweedy is in alt-country circles, when he surrounds himself with guitarist Nels Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, drummer Glenn Kotche and founding member/bassist John Stirratt, there are few bands in the world that have the chops to return to the stage after a 19-month break and play two sprawling 25-song sets with no repeats and few missteps.
Wednesday night’s show opened with “Hell Is Chrome,” off the “A Ghost Is Born” album and the first time the band has played it live since 2014. There were other rarities sprinkled throughout the first night, including the song “You and I,” played for the first time since 2014; and “Remember the Mountain Bed,” from the “Mermaid Avenue” sessions of Woody Guthrie songs the band recorded with British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, played for the first time since 2015.
The Wednesday set included at least one song from every Wilco record, with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “Schmilco,” the band’s most recent studio release, getting the most exposure. (The guys played four songs off of each.) The beauty of a live performance, however, is watching a band like Wilco use the studio material as building blocks, turning them into living, breathing works of art that are created for one night only. Two examples were the songs “War on War,” from “YHF,” and “Impossible Germany,” from “Sky Blue Sky,” that became exquisite things of shimmering beauty on the Bijou stage.
It would be easy to credit Cline for those two standout moments. He is, after all, one of the most underrated guitarists in the country, a veteran of the outside-the-mainstream Big Ears Festival that takes place every spring in downtown Knoxville and an in-demand collaborator with a cross-section of musicians from a number of diverse genres. Watching him from 15 feet away on Wednesday night was like taking part in a master class on the instrument: On a song like the tender “You and I,” with Tweedy crooning softly beside him, he caressed the guitar like a lover, coaxing beauty from it with impossibly long fingers and a deft embrace that seemed almost romantic. On “War on War,” however, he seemed to channel the suggested conflict of the song’s title, heaving and strangling the instrument to make it scream and howl during his solo.
He’s not flashy, but he is mesmerizing to watch. And while his standout work on “Impossible Germany” was staggering, he never stepped outside of the camaraderie of the band. He may have been in the spotlight, but without the rhythm section anchor of Stirratt and Kotche and the understated playing of Jorgensen and Sansone laying down the song’s foundation underneath his pyrotechnics, the whole thing would have collapsed.
Over the course of two hours, it never even came close. Tweedy’s between-song banter was droll and charming, but he’s never been a big talker, preferring instead to let the songs communicate for him. While there may have once been a time his reputed irascible personality might have made the show’s closer, “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” seem sardonic, he was all smiles when the house lights came on last week.
And for good reason. He’s clean and sober, he recently released a solo album and an autobiography, and he’s got what could be described, without exaggeration, as one of the best bands in America. That they chose Knoxville to woodshed for two nights was a gift, and even though “A Shot in the Arm” wasn’t played until the final song on night two, I can’t even complain. Wilco at the Bijou may never happen again, but if it does, you’d do well to be in attendance.