On Tuesday, November 5, Wilco took to the stage at Hill Auditorium for a stop on their Ode to Joy tour, following a strong opening set by Deep Sea Diver (featuring a particularly enthusiastic and capable drummer). The opener “Bright Leaves” set the tone for most of the evening ― relaxed and melancholy.
Ode to Joy, while perhaps the strongest project Wilco has released since The Whole Love (2012), does not translate well to a live show. The album is fairly low-energy, more suited to background listening than to a concert performance. Most of the cuts from that album felt obligatory, given that the tour is nominally in support of it. Wilco played “Citizens” live for the first and, God willing, last time ever. Luckily, they included plenty of crowd-pleasing numbers off of their earlier albums as well. Highlights of their set included a moving rendition of “Jesus, Etc,” a face-melting version of “At Least That’s What You Said,” and an unexpected yet gorgeous performance of the sparse “Reservations.” In contrast, their decision not to play what is by far their second-most popular song (“California Stars”) is curious yet powerful. They reeled off almost thirty songs in total; concertgoers certainly got their money’s worth in that respect.
Nels Cline is one of the most talented guitarists of his generation. If you hadn’t been aware of that entering Hill Auditorium, you were certainly aware of it by the time you left. He fired off blistering solo after solo, a truly impressive display. That said, I think he is far from alone in the unfortunate belief that the amount and frequency of notes you play in a given amount of time are directly correlated with the quality of a guitar solo. At a certain point, the melody is neglected in favor of technical prowess, and it begins to feel as though I’m watching a gymnastic exhibition rather than a musical performance.
Jeff Tweedy cuts an unassuming figure on stage, his relaxed demeanor likely a product of over 30 years of experience. His interactions with the audience were minimal yet radiated a quiet confidence. Tweedy gently ribbed the crowd for being low-energy a few times during the set ― with the exception of the people at the front who rocked out for just about every song (and who Jeff Tweedy lightheartedly accused of sneaking in alcohol), the audience was barely capable of remaining on their feet, let alone displaying any sort of passionate enjoyment of the music. Unfortunately, this was not the case with the man behind me who doggedly clapped along enthusiastically to each song, unaccompanied and offbeat.
While Hill Auditorium is undoubtedly a beautiful venue with superb acoustic qualities, I have never seen a show there that was not lacking in crowd energy. I attribute this to a combination of the older clientele it attracts as well as the cramped layout of the seating, which does not provide sufficient space for the audience to stand up and get into the music.
Diehard Wilco fans will undoubtedly have left Hill Auditorium satisfied, while more casual listeners likely enjoyed the experience but could have gone for less extended guitar freakouts (e.g. “We Were Lucky”). A few questionable setlist choices aside, it was a largely pleasing performance; a nice snapshot of a band, and its audience, ageing gracefully together.