On Sunday night, most people in the Washington metropolitan area huddled in front of televisions to watch Super Bowl 50, or at least the advertisements. A few thousand fortunate souls instead filled Constitution Hall to witness a concert by Chicago indie-rock veterans Wilco. Founder and frontman Jeff Tweedy thanked the audience for skipping the National Holiday in favor of his band, noting that the concert hall felt like an assemblage of true believers or, as Tweedy put it, “Jews in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day.” He then asked if anyone knew the score of the game, but, as an audience member yelled out the score, quickly added “I don’t care”. You already know how the Super Bowl turned out, so let me tell you about the concert you missed. It didn’t include Cold Play and Beyonce, but I was there in person and the show was super.
Wilco is a critically acclaimed and influential band founded by Tweedy in 1994. From roots as an alternative country band, Wilco has morphed into a band that can play, and play well, well anything. How critically acclaimed and influential? Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Wilco’s second album, Being There, as the 35th greatest album of the 1990s. Mermaid Avenue, an album of Woody Guthrie covers with Billy Bragg also made that decade’s top 100. The band didn’t stop after two top albums. Wilco’s fourth album, 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was called by Rolling Stone the third best album of the first decade of the new century. The latest album, released in 2015 without fanfare and at no charge, is ironically called Star Wars and also made many year-end ‘best of’ lists.
Wilco opened the concert by playing Star Wars in its entirety. At only 34 minutes in length, the album consumed barely a quarter of the concert. Star Wars provided a good introduction to the band, and the superb musicianship of its six members, assuming anyone in the audience needed an introduction. The songs formed a coherent whole when played in sequence, and several of the songs could have slipped easily into one of the band’s previous eight albums. Whether any of the new songs become fixtures of future live shows remains to be seen, although “Random Name Generator” had a riff that drilled right into your brain’s sweet spot. The band then launched into the night’s main event, an hour of music drawn from the band’s extensive catalog. Tweedy called it their “greatest hits set, or more accurately, greatest hit set”, as only “Heavy Metal Drummer” was even a moderate radio hit.
Wilco features three guitarists, Tweedy, Nels Cline, and Pat Sansone. Cline handles most of the soloing, particularly impressive on “Art of Almost” and the first encore, “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Sansone took the lead on several songs with beautifully melodic solos, and the song “Impossible Germany” from Sky Blue Sky gave the band an opportunity to launch a three-guitar attack. The second encore consisted of an acoustic set of five songs, including “It’s Just That Simple” from the band’s first album, on which bassist John Stirratt, who has been with Tweedy from the beginning, had lead vocals. For its final song, Wilco paid tribute to the recently departed David Bowie by performing his track “Space Oddity.” It wasn’t the Super Bowl, but I don’t think anyone in the audience was disappointed with the decision to see and hear Wilco instead.
The opening act was a four-piece band led by Steve Gunn of Philadelphia. They performed in an alt-country style that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on Wilco’s first album or in Tweedy’ s original band, Uncle Tupelo