I can't lie: I went into Friday night's Wilco show at the Aronoff Theater in Cincinnati thinking that it might be the last time I saw the band. See, I've been following leader Jeff Tweedy and his rotating cast of band members for nearly 15 years — ever since I saw Tweedy play some of the early Wilco material solo acoustic in 1995 at Lounge Ax, the now-shuttered Chicago rock bar co-owned by his wife. I loved every twist and turn of their musical journey, from the countrypolitan sound of their 1995 debut A.M. through the power-pop evolution of the two-disc Being There, the urban poetry of Summerteeth and the experimental genius of 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
And then, well, I began to lose the thread a bit. I liked 2004's A Ghost is Born all right, but by 2007's Sky Blue Sky it felt like the band had zigged into a direction I wasn't that into: a kind of A.M. radio, slightly Grateful Dead-like riffola that just wasn't my thing. The last time I saw the group, it felt at times like I had slipped into a Dark Star Orchestra show by mistake. I had never missed one of their tour cycles before, but I skipped out the previous time they came through town.
I learned the error of my ways on Friday night, when the group — which at this point has maintained its most consistent line-up since formation — won me all the way back over and then some with a set that made me immediately go back to Ghost and Sky and give them another try.
Unwrapping a handful of tunes from their new self-titled album, the band straight-up killed it, playing to a packed house of 2,700 who sang along to nearly every lyric and jam danced (I'm looking at you, dude in the balcony box seat) as if the ghost of Jerry Garcia himself was on stage.
From the opening riffs "Wilco (The Song)," through "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "Company In My Back," I could tell I would be regretting the error of my ways. By the time they ripped into the new album’s psychedelic brain buster "Bull Black Nova," the waves of trippy, droney guitar leads from Nels Cline, Tweedy and utility player Pat Sansone were already piling up at an alarming rate.
"You Are My Face" brought on some indie funk and crowd favorite "Handshake Drugs," boiled at a low, chugging rumble before it blew up into a thundering jam, with relentless drummer Glenn Kotche whacking his skins with mallets. When the band plays "A Shot In The Arm" and thousands of fans shout along with the brain-teaser refrain "Bloodier than blood!" there's truly nothing like it in all of rock.
Maybe I'm biased because my wife's cousins played a rocked out electric version during our wedding ceremony, but "California Stars" sounded especially sweet on the night we were celebrating our 10th anniversary. Tweedy's never been the most athletic of performers, but I was impressed by his Elvis poses and microphone skills during a shambly take on "Hummingbird," which ended with him swinging the mic in wide arcs and catching it as the song crashed to a close.
The set ended with epic "Misunderstood," another whisper-to-a-squall monster that roared to a three guitar shredding crescendo before Tweedy brought it all the way back down on a dime. I've seen the band perform most of these songs many times over, but the energy and creativity they bring always makes them sound brand new. There may not be another band out there right now so in command of their catalog, yet so willing to let it mutate and re-invent it every night on stage.
I'm back, boys. Sorry I doubted you.