While the metal hordes who had descended upon Wellington like a late 80s coked-up Ozzy to a line of ants (just read The Dirt whydoncha) were so very conspicuous, it would have been hard to guess that Wilco were playing if you were unlucky enough not to have a ticket. No posters up around town, not even at the venue, and the stylishly nerdy crowd of Tweedy enthusiasts beating their way to the Opera House blended in pretty nicely with Monday night Welly. Check shirts, quality pullovers, sensible footwear and trendy specs are part of the uniform in NZ's best, smartest city, and staying under the radar isn't too tough after a weekend where leather vests and studded codpieces seemed strangely appropriate.
Miriam Clancy was first up: Doc Matrens, pregnant tum and a big voice that comfortably filled the hushed, seated venue. The Opera House was an excellent choice of venue: like the Ryan Adams shows last year, the choice of an all-seater seemed to be well-received by an audience who were more than happy to sit down, shut up and listen from the moment the curtain opened. A loud, solo voice in a quiet room always makes the hairs on my neck stand up, and "Girl About Town" and "The Game" were powerfully performed: the latter's unfaithful lover / game of cards metaphors come close to being overplayed, but when cheerfully dedicated to a chap in the audience, the "You cheated on me" chorus packs some punch.
I latched on to Wilco quite late in the piece. Friends dug them, but at the time of their early 00s Big Day Out appearance, I opted to see the D4 for the umpteenth time on the other stage (and lost both shoes in the process, but that's a very different story). I finally cottoned on though, and hungrily tucked into the back catalogue. I'd never seen them live however - I even lived in their home town of Chicago for a while and still couldn't swing it: they played the day I arrived, the day after I left and a couple of times when I was out of town. So this was big news in my world: I was pretty excited about KISS, Alice and what was once Ozzy, but this was something else again...
It began with a lot of cheering, some shy waves and "Sunken Treasure". That Tweedy-centric opener was a bit of a curveball: for the first forty five minutes or so it was the Nels Cline show. He was on seated slide duties for the first song, but soon became the dominant presence on stage. Six-foot-lots in blood red jeans, looking for all the world like Britt Daniel’s crazy European uncle, he jerkily punished his guitar, throwing angular shapes over cracking versions of “You Are My Face” and “Company in My Back”. After six or seven songs we hadn’t even got a hello from the singer, but this never seemed standoffish or rude, just a man happy to forget the niceties and keep playing songs with the best set of musicians he’s ever been involved with. By reputation he can be prickly and curt on-stage, but when the greetings finally came, it was clear this was a relaxed and confident Jeff Tweedy. A few off-hand jokes about the weekend’s metal shows followed, and later he would even stop “Red Eyed and Blue” mid-song for a pretty sharp Ozzy impression.
Sometimes bands who enjoy changing direction on record struggle to put together a coherent live set, with stylistic changes from disparate albums jarring when mixed together live. I had wondered (until Kicking Television at least) whether this would be the case with Wilco, given the various tangents their albums have taken. Like the live album though, this set came together seamlessly – with the pop heart of the more experimental album tracks like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” exposed, and the straighter tunes like “A Shot in the Arm” given a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style roughing up.
Prior to this show, I didn’t rate a number of the Sky Blue Sky tracks as highly as others in the back catalogue, but tunes like “Impossible Germany” and “Side With the Seeds” were made for this kind of setting, their lengthy instrumental parts showcasing the brilliant musicianship of the current line-up. Glenn Kotche’s drumming is a key part of the latter-day Wilco sound, but it looks fantastic too, all jazzy flicks and fencing with the ride. Bassist John Stirratt’s impeccable backing vocals were also prominent, but it was hard not to focus on Cline, his lanky, jerky style belying an incredible dexterity. Cline’s skills were easy to contrast with the public guitar solo-off or Zakk Wylde’s lone shredfest at Rock2Wgtn – here, the solos made absolute sense with the song, rather than being just an aimless pissing contest. The fingers may not have moved quite as supersonically over the frets as those in the Cake Tin, and he probably can’t play behind his head or with his teeth, but I know who I’d rather be on Guitar Hero, and he ain’t the guy with the black and white circles on his guitar.
It wasn’t all layers, textures and dueling guitars – the likes of “Reservations”, “How to Fight Loneliness” and a gorgeous version of Mermaid Avenue's “California Stars” helped keep the light and shade balance. Encore one brought us back to Being There, and the straight-ahead country rock of “Monday” and “I Got You” sounded almost crude in comparison to what had come before – great, potent songs, but easy to see why they are kept separate from the main set. Encore two, never in doubt for a crowd who had long since given up on the idea of a seated gig (and kudos to you, lady who started the dancing), had to be “Kidsmoke”, and we piled out into the night, deaf and grinning.
We walked home past the last few hangers on in souvenir metal tees, and I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them: even without pyro or a dragon, they’d just missed easily the best show of the weekend. Maybe I just needed a bit more sleep, a bit less of a holiday diet and a couple of nights without a rock gig but a killer plan hit me: give Tweedy some fake blood and a flying fox to the back row and they’d be utterly unstoppable…