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Some times you blink and a whole summer passes you by. Also, in Los Angeles, sometimes you find yourself on the precipice of October and confronted by an unusually balmy night and warm winds. On this final night of September—and already the last show in the 2012 summer season at the Hollywood Bowl—a simple bill featuring only Wilco and Joanna Newsom finished everything off just right.
Ultra folksy harpist and singer Joanna Newsom was the night’s only opener (usually shows at the Bowl have at least two or three). Newsom played a sedate and sweet six-song set mixing material from her last album 2012’s Have One On Me and earlier albums Ys and The Milk-Eyed Mender. Each song was rendered with Newsom sitting, singing and delicately plucking her harp. The harp playing is one of the most unique attributes of Newsom’s sound and simultaneously challenging thing to evaluate. Ask yourself, just how often do bands that play “rock shows” actually insist that you focus on quiet, nuanced harp playing? Accompanied only by Neal Morgan on percussion and Ryan Francesconi on banjo/guitar, the center focus was Newson’s nimble and serene plucking. Songs like “In California” and “Cosmia” are spirited treks through folk-derived music done on a scale far beyond the hobbyist level.
Wilco delivered their headline set with powerful range, chemistry and technique. No surprise given their reputation, but still extra long for a show at the Hollywood Bowl, Wilco played a staggering twenty-six songs by the time show had completed. It was two and a half hours of positively daunting showmanship. “I Might” and “Sunken Treasure” showcased the band’s strongest asset, frontman and band leader Jeff Tweedy’s smooth, timeless voice. Tweedy may not be known for excelling in typical notions of vocal range, but what he gives up in that respect he makes up ten times over in the unforgettable tone of his voice. All the while the band’s not-so-secret weapon Nels Cline added color to each song. Many songs Cline would wait patiently, punctuating moments with flourishes of noise or tremolo picking, but on tracks like “Impossibly Germany,” he was a fireball of mounting fretwork. When Cline is given the spotlight in a song, it’s almost like unleashing a hulking behemoth. You don’t as much focus him. You provide a backdrop and then get out of the way.
Generally, Wilco has evolved into an amorphous entity. With a stunning attention to detail, the band has the range to go pretty much wherever they feel the need to. Songs can explode in quasi-metal blasts of distortion, envelope with jam-band-like curiosity or charm with a Motown-style swing. “Art of Almost” and “Misunderstood” take this quality to its logistical extreme, eschewing conventional notions of genre in favor of supersonic manifestations of sound. Outside of that, it’s apparent there are two sides of the group as they have evolved over the years. One, the more experimental and noisy side, finds the band deftly navigating the boundaries of dynamic range on songs like “Born Alone” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Later, the other side—a more straightforward and Americana approach—is warmly represented in “Always in Love” and “Hummingbird.” “A Shot in the Arm” finishes the set proper to great excitement, but the band manages to work in seven more songs after the first encore break. Two of the seven (“California Stars” and “Hoodoo Voodoo”) from their near legendary collaborative album with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue. Before taking a second encore, the upbeat “I’m the Man Who Loves You” featured a trading series of continually more impressive guitar solos by Cline and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone. The band returned for two more, “Hoodoo Voodoo” and early career track “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” the latter of which a rocking and to-the-point number tailor-made to conclude the event.
Few can take a stage as large as this one after so many years laboring in clubs and theaters, but to their credit Wilco showed what most diehard fans have known conclusively for years: the band is already legendary in status, and will go down in history as one of the most noteworthy bands of their generation.
Wilco Set List:
“Dawned on Me”
“War on War”
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”
“Art of Almost”
“Hate it Here”
“Box Full of Letters”
“Always in Love”
“A Shot in the Arm”
-encore break 1-
“Ashes of American Flags”
“Heavy Metal Drummer”
“I’m the Man Who Loves You”
-encore break 2-
“Outtasite (Outta Mind)”