In Berkeley, there are roughly 5 days out of the year where the nighttime temperature gets to be around 70°. Generally, even in summer, as soon as the sun goes down the mercury drops to about 50° or less. If you live here, you’ve grown accustomed to it and accept the fact that if you wear shorts and a T-shirt during the day, you’re gonna be changing into something else later on; a scarf, a jacket, snowboard gear. Which goes a long way in explaining why people in this town get so giddy and out of their minds when this particular meteorological anomaly occurs — we’re bursting at the seams with appreciation.
But while warm summer nights in Berkeley may be a rarity, an amazing show by Wilco at the Greek is not. In fact, outside of their native Chicago, the band seems to be at home here like nowhere else. They have the place dialed in in a way few bands do and the sound at the venue never sounds better than when they take the stage — from their melodic folk to the electronic dissonance, every nuance, every drum hit is clear. Having been together now for several years, this current incarnation of the band is tight and almost feels familial, both in the way they interact with each other and the audience. There’s a swing to the music now that feels improvisational, transcendent and oddly a little funky — coloring their hard to pin down style with an even broader palette.
By definition, this leg of the tour has been rather unconventional given that the band is supporting a new album that has yet to be released (Wilco (the album) drops June 30). But for me, at least, this made the night all the more interesting. I purposely chose not to listen to a streamed version of the album online (a difficult challenge I might add) so that the new material could hit me without the support of familiarity — songs would either work or they wouldn’t. Thankfully, as it turned out, they did, especially “Bull Black Nova”, which moved and grinded melodically as well as anything Tweedy and the band has written to date.
In many ways, the evening felt like a party; from the sing-alongs during “A Shot in the Arm”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “California Stars”, “Jesus Etc.” (and, well, almost everything in their back catalog), to Tweedy’s inspired and hilarious Janis Joplin meets Marvin Gaye falsetto on “Hate It Here”, to Tweedy’s son coming on stage dressed head to toe in tie-dye, to the sweet dedication to his wife, to the new material the band seemed absolutely energized to play, to lead guitarist Nels Cline’s now seemingly traditional red pants, to the jammed out version of “I’m the Man That Loves You” that closed out the pre-encore part of the show — all of it seemed to suggest a certain type of feeling running through the band and everyone in the audience.
All this said — and while it was indeed a brilliant 2 1/2 hour set of music — where everything came together and demonstrated why Wilco, especially this incarnation, is so compelling live, was during their final number of the night, “Hoodoo Voodoo”, a song off the Woody Guthrie inspired project with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue. Blissfully funked out and complete with goofy, albeit heart exploding, dueling lead guitars, it was a breathtaking and joyous way to end the evening, and a fitting wink to the opening “Wilco (The Song)”. Of course, they could’ve closed things out with the obvious deeply grooved “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, complete with Tweedy sharing his guitar with the audience, and all would have been more than right in Berkeley, but they didn’t and, well, what more can you say than this, wow — a 70° starry night, 8000 bouncing souls and a band that loves you.
Okkervil River opened the show to a near capacity crowd with a near perfect 45 minute set that included songs from several of their records. Some of the standouts: “Pop Lie”, “John Allen Smith Sails”, “Plus Ones” and “Lost Coastlines”. The band truly provided for a great double bill.
Wilco (The Song)
Muzzle Of Bees
A Shot In The Arm
At Least That’s What You Said
Bull Black Nova
You Are My Face
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
I Can’t Stand It
Hate It Here
I’m The Man Who Loves You
You Never Know
The Late Greats
Box Full Of Letters