Wilco's quietly lush melodies fill the Meyerhoff


September 30, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Midway through the sold-out Wilco show at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Tuesday night, a fan in the back shouted out a request to turn it up.

"Turn it up?" asked lead singer Jeff Tweedy. "Nah, it sounds good. Be quiet."

He was right. Wilco's music - a lush and layered landscape of guitars, drums, keyboards and electronic gadgetry from which, improbably and sometimes unbelievably, beautiful melodies regularly emerge - sounded just right at the Meyerhoff.

This is a band that has left small clubs - and small music - behind. Wilco is not quite an arena act yet, but the group's six touring members and their gear easily filled the vast Meyerhoff stage while a huge video screen behind them displayed a kaleidoscope of buildings, insects and skyscapes.

The screen also gave the impression the set had been carefully planned, leaving little chance for spontaneity. Still, Tweedy showed a playful side, urging fans to jog in place with him during "Hummingbird" and encouraging a call and response on an old favorite, "Kingpin." He also paid tribute to the elegant setting. "We've been playing in a lot of dumps on this tour," Tweedy said, pausing dramatically, "and this is one of them."

Wilco's two-hour set focused on its most recent album, A Ghost Is Born, a complex study of heartbreak and emotion. A typical song is "Wishful Thinking," which began with a metallic clashing and grinding of guitars that sounded like a train applying its emergency brakes. Tweedy, at stage-center, strummed inaudibly on an acoustic guitar until the noise fell away, as if defeated by his simple chords, and a quiet, poetic song broke through.

The crowd of 2,400 was respectful and appreciative. There is a certain homogeneity to Wilco crowds. It was easy to guess, even a few blocks from the Meyerhoff, who was heading to the show. Inside, before the show, a few people sat on benches reading books by John Hersey and Yann Martel. The line for martinis was longer than that for beer.

But the concert provided what Tweedy called "rock 'n' roll joy," straddling the line between wailing, inaccessible noise and gentle melodies. The show picked up halfway through with "War on War," a song written before the war with Iraq but holds a particular resonance now.

Tweedy urged the crowd to vote on Nov. 2, saying he didn't care who they voted for. Then he changed his mind. "I do care who you vote for," he said. "Don't base your vote on fear. Base your vote on what you feel and know is right and do not be terrorized by this administration."

The comments preceded the final song of the evening, a cover of Bill Fay's "Be Not So Fearful." Tweedy intended the song to embolden his audience, and the lefty crowd ate it up. But politics aside, it was lovely music that highlighted both the strength and vulnerability of Tweedy's raspy voice.

Wilco proved that despite the depth of its catalog, it is not a nostalgia act, even though it seemed Tuesday night that the older the song, the louder the applause it received. "Passenger Side" and "California Stars," two oldies played back to back, seemed like a balm after so much noise.

But the strange juxtaposition of Wilco's old and new sound was most vividly displayed by the laptop computer atop an old-fashioned upright piano. New band member Mikael Jorgensen frequently and effortlessly switched between the two instruments, as Wilco moved confidently toward its future.

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