Austin loves Wilco. Anyone doubting this need only look at Twitter this week, where trends in Austin have featured "Wilco" and "Jeff Tweedy" all week long. The band's musical sensibilities of alt country, folk, and noise-rock scream Austin despite the fact that they're based in Chicago, so it only makes sense that tickets to both of this week's shows were snapped up immediately.
One can't fault Wilco's ambition nearly 20 years in, despite the cries of "Dadrock" that sometimes dog the group's milder material. Wednesday's set actually led with the 12-minute "One Sunday Morning," which closes their latest album The Whole Love. The song seemed like an unconventional lead-off, but was a sly move from a veteran act—the tune's slow burn both focused the audience's attention and helped the group find their center at the outset. Jeff Tweedy commanded the band with economy of motion and occasional awkward dancing, all while looking like a rumpled high school English teacher in a purple plaid tweed (we know) jacket.
Wilco's die-hard fans seem to gravitate toward their weirder and noisier material, and as such, the opening notes of "Art Of Almost" drew huge cheers—not a bad result for a track from the new album. The song sounded enormous in the ACL venue, and both the noise and the quiet nuances came through in captivating fashion. One difference between Studio 6A and Moody is the ability to accomodate a touring show's lights and production, which meant "Art Of Almost" came equipped with a hyper lightshow freak-out to accompany Nels Cline's guitar virtuoso acrobatics.
After throwing the crowd into the deep end with two lengthy pieces in twenty minutes, the band flipped back into pop mode with recent single "I Might," which showcases what has become a booming and capital P professional arena-rock rhythm section. While Wilco's NPR darling status and more esoteric moments sometimes lead casual fans to think of them as indie rock, the sounds coming from the stage were those of a polished band of craftsmen who are used to projecting to a festival field.
The group's focus on controlled noise was a marvelous thing to watch—despite having seen Wilco seven or eight times before, it was impossible to recall a performance of theirs this warm, precise and perfectly paced. They're just really good right now. When Tweedy let loose with a casual "It's al-right" at the close of a song, one couldn't help but think that fellow ACL-TV veteran (and controlled noise specialist) Britt Daniel would have approved.
One dilemma for ACL-TV regulars like Spoon, Wilco and Lyle Lovett is that their regular appearances on the show can sometimes constrain their setlist. In this instance, the band ducked the problem by playing far longer than they needed to, turning in a two-hour, 23 song marathon that was more than anyone had a right to expect. Mr. Tweedy made several jokes throughout the evening, saying: "You've probably heard this one at every Wilco show you've attended, yet somehow it has never made it to TV. Maybe we'll at least get to YouTube." The set certainly leaned most on The Whole Love, but also included audience favorites like "The Late Greats" and "Hummingbird." Even A.M. standout "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" got an airing, with Tweedy quipping: "It's 17 years old, but I still think this could be a hit!"
The whole evening felt like a triumph for ACL-TV, who have really captured the zeitgeist in their first season downtown at Moody by hosting a vast selection of music that straddled the line between populist (Mumford and Sons, Coldplay), creative (Arcade Fire, Randy Newman) and eclectic (Joanna Newsom, Raphael Saadiq). This may end up as one of the best seasons in the show's long history, and Wednesday's show was one last feather in the cap. While it wasn't the last song, the dreamy and lilting "Far, Far Away" felt like a perfect ending, both melancholy and beautiful, just like the band themselves.
The actual finish was a bit of an ace up the sleeve: Wilco brought up songwriting legend and current opening act Nick Lowe onstage for a spirited run through his 1979 hit "Cruel To Be Kind." It was a classy move, ceding the spotlight at closing time, and one that left the audience smiling and feeling lucky on the way out the door.