By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music
OK, technically the new leg of Wilco's summer tour kicked off in Denver on June 22. But Wilco are a tight unit and have been road warriors for most of 2012 so far, so the notion of opening-night jitters or rustiness simply doesn't come into play here.
Rather than come out with a roar, Wilco took the stage with a whisper: Jeff Tweedy and band opened with "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" from their most recent full-length, "The Whole Love," sung in a voice so low that the raucous, roaring crowd quickly grew silent to pick up the vocal nuances.
In fact, the whole band kept it low-key and elegant, gliding into a perfect summer night at Red Rock Amphitheatre with fan favorites and deep cuts, including "Art of Almost" and "Poor Places," which set the tone for the evening. As Tweedy explained, "We're just gonna play some more tunes."
Wilco now rival Tom Petty's Heartbreakers as the most in-tune-with-each-other bands in rock. Sure, the E Street Band can make buildings shake, but the players in Wilco listen to each other and musically interact like few bands can (especially given the occasional lineup change over the years, now stabilized). Like the subtle touches of the Heartbreakers, they make it look effortless, but the band interaction is intense yet instinctual. Nowhere was this more evident than in "Impossible Germany," with a Nels Cline guitar solo that was impossibly gorgeous and elegant yet still managed to take the top of your head off. From then on the show kicked harder, with "Handshake Drugs" and "I Must Be High" bringing predictable cheers from the crowd.
But they don't pander. Wilco finally have a deep enough catalog that they no longer have to rely on their two best albums, "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," for the bulk of their set list (though certainly those albums were represented, with an always-welcome blast of "A Shot in the Arm," "I'm Always in Love" and "Heavy Metal Drummer"). There was the occasional stumble. Fan favorite "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" was presented in an alternate acoustic arrangement so far from its original near-techno beat that it had fans scratching their heads until the lyrics kicked in; some didn't recognize it until the band broke into the familiar ending guitar riff.
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Tweedy's guitar freak-out songs are always welcome, but opening night was light on them (it figures -- the second night at Red Rocks featured two of his best, "Misunderstood" and "At Least That's What You Said" in the first four songs of the set). Cline made up for it for the guitar aficionados in the crowd, peeling off frantic solos with crackling energy. Bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche still remain one of the steadiest yet most creative rhythm sections operating, with both adding particular flourishes that make their sound part of the composition, not merely keeping the beat.
Opening act Punch Brothers hung out to join in on "California Stars" in the first encore. It's the Punch Brothers' only date on the tour, but Wilco have a rotating set of great openings, ranging from the Avett Brothers to Lee Renaldo. The tour continues until Sept. 30, when Wilco will play the Hollywood Bowl.
Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to the MSN Music blogs Reverb and Scene & Heard.