Live Review: Wilco Shows its Strengths at the Orpheum

Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgensen widen Wilco’s palette at the Orpheum on Friday.

New England’s blessed to have the Chicago band Wilco headline its diverse Solid Sound festival in the Berkshires every other year, though that means outdoor sets on a large field. With no Solid Sound in 2016, however, Wilco greeted the new year with a tour of small theaters that included a return to the Orpheum — and the band’s subtleties and intensity was magnified in Friday’s first of two nights in that cozier setting.

After 12 of its 22 years with the same lineup, Wilco remains underappreciated for its musical prowess and eclecticism, again on display in a stunning three-part show that consumed two hours with nary a pause.  It began with a performance of Wilco’s entire new album Star Wars, quietly released last summer as a free download, a galaxy away from the level of attention given to the return of that movie franchise.

Nonetheless, within that 35-minute opening sequence, Wilco vigorously displayed its range as a taut, cerebral ensemble, from the jaunty riff-rock of “Random Name Generator” to singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy’s Lou Reed-y lope through “The Satellite,” while lights twinkled like stars on a curtained backdrop. Lead guitarist Nels Cline wasted no time in confirming his role as the group’s virtuoso wild card, building that song to a furiously strummed solo that made it hard to believe he could top it later.

But of course Cline did, as the relatively short entirety of Star Wars (compared to, say, Bruce Springsteen’s current wade through double album The River) left time for another hour and a half of old favorites. Cline could play with anyone – and play anything, as he variously suggested noise-metal, free jazz, garage-punk, alt-country (when he shifted to lap steel) and even electronica, as he swooped feedback through “Art of Almost,” which rode drumming savant Glenn Kotche’s tribal cross-rhythms into a thrash-rock freakout. Even in more relaxed, plaintive lopes like “Handshake Drugs” and “Via Chicago,” Wilco elevated around Cline’s sonic outbursts. Maybe he could have held back a bit, but even when he shot for the stratosphere, his volume and tone didn’t overwhelm the rest of the band.

Finally, for a palate-cleanser, Wilco served a five-song acoustic encore, with even-keeled leader Tweedy and co-founding bass partner John Stirratt singing at one microphone while Cline focused on his lap playing, Kotche manned a smaller kit and orchestral specialists Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone respectively added melodica and xylophone icing. Cline and Kotche still goosed “Misunderstood” into a chaotic burst before the sextet wound down with gems like “War on War” and “California Stars” (from Wilco’s 1998 Billy Bragg-assisted Mermaid Avenue take on Woody Guthrie lyrics). Tweedy tipped his creamy cowboy hat to the crowd. His face was hidden from the lights for much of the night, and that’s probably the way he liked it, letting the whole band shine.

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