Opera House
March 24 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Wilco come with a lot of baggage. There’s the nonsensical claim that they are the “American Radiohead”, or the fact to some they’re the indie Messiahs who took on a major with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and won (well, kinda), or, the mutterings about Jeff Tweedy’s inability to keep a band intact, or the fact that the band have confidently, unclassifiably, straddled a plethora of genres (just compare A.M. to ‘Spiders’ from A Ghost is Born for example). Indeed there is so much baggage, that it’s easy to forget that they’re a top live band. Purely and simply: great performers, armed with great songs. And in Wellington, they showcased this in an epic two hour set that covered material from all over their career.

Miriam Clancy was the opener, a singer-songwriter, and self-confessed Tweedy fan, from Auckland who has been garnering big props both here and overseas. She played a solo set, and showcased an exceptional voice. However, her songs were in need of a clearer, more distinct personality: either musically, or more likely given that she’s a singer-songwriter, lyrically. Her songs just drifted past with an unmemorable, unremarkable distance. A great singer-songwriter can make you forget that love has been written about for thousands of years, a not-so-great singer-song-writer makes that history all too obvious.

Wilco got off to a measured start that exploded, with ‘Sunken Treasure’ from 1996’s Being There being the set opener. They played a bit from that album, in fact a bit from their entire career, as Tweedy was almost apologetic for not playing down in New Zealand very much before. Their back catalogue would be intimidating to condense down, and most fans would have left wanting to hear particular absentees, but songs such as ‘Monday’, ‘A Shot in the Arm’, ‘How to Fight Loneliness’, ‘I am Trying to Break Your Heart’, ‘Jesus, etc.’, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’, ‘Handshake Drugs’ etc. etc. were cranked out, no doubt pleasing the fans who have persevered with the band for a while. Material from the new album, Sky Blue Sky, was also well-received.

But there were little moments which stood out. There was the brave lady who danced at the front of the stage by herself, in full glare of everybody else, the sullenly seated masses. This was the show’s biggest flaw – the gig needed to be at a standing venue, despite the fact that the Opera House, as you’d expect, has great acoustics. This lady didn’t care that she looked silly (she either had a lot of guts, or something in her veins was bloodier than blood), and she was rewarded by being able to hug Tweedy during ‘Hummingbird’, Tweedy having gently teased her before. Tweedy didn’t talk for a while, but when he did (despite the best efforts of an awful, cringeworthy heckler) he joked how his manhood was threatened by the weekend’s Rock2Wgtn shows. But when he cranked the riff of ‘I’m the Man Who Loves You’, it seemed like he could have been on stage at the Stadium playing to tens of thousands of bogans.

The musicianship was also impressive, the guitar-work of Nels Cline in particular outstanding. Personally, I could have done with a bit more experimentation, or at least a bit more jarring white noise and feedback – it didn’t feel jolting enough at times given their background – but then again, if they’d taken that approach some fans would have wanted more of their country/anthemic tunes. They’ve just got too much good stuff. However they closed their second encore with ‘Spiders’, partially sating my deep desire to be skinned alive by guitars. It was an excellent performance overall, a tight, intuitive band who can justifiably tag themselves as one of the foremost live acts around.