Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy is sort of like a Disney hero who has halfway turned into a dog. Seriously, work with me here: He is downright shaggy yet lovable, tortured but relatable. And his band's smartly wistful breakdowns are the same: fractured mongrels that often find beauty in chaotic disarray.
Call me crazy, but I'm sticking with that theory after seeing the Chicago sextet — a y'alternative progenitor and the most heralded art-rock band of the past 15 years — play a remarkable three-hour, 34-song, no-intermission set at a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall on Tuesday. Wilco's ramshackle stage was a mess of wires and pedals, amps and lamps. And yet that was curiously gorgeous, too.
After launching in '95 with the jangly roots-rock hooks of debut album A.M., Wilco, an offshoot of Uncle Tupelo, embarked on loop-de-looping career involving drugs, infighting, record-label shenanigans and, of course, endless accolades, awards and hipster huzzah.
The band hasn't always been lucid or likable (see Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). But Wilco has always been interesting (again, see Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). And now, touring behind 2009's Wilco (The Album), the crew seems to have finally achieved a balance of rock/pop songcraft and jazz/prog experimentation. Loud or soft, weird and catchy: It all seems to work now.
For every loopy, pop shuffle the guys played at Ruth Eckerd — Shot in the Arm, Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (again), Can't Stand It — they'd counter with something dark, bold, expansive: Bull Black Nova, Impossible Germany, Handshake Drugs, that last a squirmy rumination that, upon Tweedy switching guitars, kicked in suddenly like a fiendish psychotropic.
With guitarist Nels Cline herking and jerking over an assortment of electronic googaws (that guy is awesome), Tweedy took center stage, an unreliable narrator who sings like a Dust Bowl John Lennon — or at least the smartest man in the saloon. The rumpled romantic is not without his sly humor, too: "I might do some stage-diving now that I know you all have health insurance," Tweedy deadpanned to the crowd of 2,180.
The show was split into thirds: plugged, unplugged, plugged again. The eight-song acoustic middle was particularly enthralling. It was also proof that Wilco doesn't need much to make a head-spinning ruckus. Fan favorite Spiders (Kidsmoke), from 2004's masterful A Ghost Is Born, kicked off the somber set, which, truth be told, wasn't all that somber. Forget the Flowers was a front-porch picker that reminded of the group's dustier daze. And the road-trip sadness of Passenger Side, the rare track from A.M., was a bittersweet beauty.
After finally leaving the stage, Wilco returned for one more. "This is for Alex Chilton … and you," Tweedy said, referencing the eccentric helmer of the Box Tops and Big Star who died last week. Tweedy chose Big Star's large-hearted Thank You Friends to close the show, a sweet nod from one shaggy dog to another.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.