CLEARWATER — When the members of Wilco first bounded onto the stage Thursday night, roughly 1,700 adoring fans stood to cheer and greet the band.
Then most of them sat right back down.
Maybe it was the elegant performing arts hall venue, or the presence of a more mature audience (all the dads in town who hadn’t instead bought tickets to the Drive-By Truckers show in St. Pete).
Either way, it was clear the crowd was eager to soak it all in, and for good reason. It’s been a decade since the Chicago alt-country rockers performed in the Tampa Bay area.
For the first two-thirds of the show, the audience watched Wilco with a joyful yet subdued reverence, refraining from singing too loudly or even pulling out their phones to snap more than the occasional photo. A few particularly intense guitar solos inspired some dudes to rise from the sea of the seated and fist pump. Those who remained with their butts in Ruth Eckerd Hall’s green velvet chairs still found ways to rock out, toes tapping and heads bobbing.
The band ran through roughly two dozen songs, reaching far back to cuts from the ’90s as well as newer songs from their latest project, 2022′s “Cruel Country.” Throughout the two-hour show, the group remained committed to getting the crowd to move.
“You having a good time? I want to make sure,” singer Jeff Tweedy said. “You’re one of those audiences that can’t seem to decide...Hopefully you’ll figure it out by the end.”
While the band’s nearly 11-minute epic “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” unfurled, Tweedy egged the crowd on, gesturing with open arms.
“It’s yours if you want it,” he said.
Wilco shined brightest during these longer numbers, when they had space to build up songs into face-melting moments. Guitarist Nels Cline treated the audience to numerous solos that left his whole body convulsing, his bangs flopping and knees knocking as he riffed.
During “Sunken Treasure,” the band ricocheted between pensive verses and chaos. During the latter, red lights flashed over the clatter of piano keys, squealing guitars and Glenn Kotche wailing on his drums as hard as he could. Then Tweedy brought it back down to earth, singing softly “Music is my savior/ I was maimed by rock and roll.”
Opening band, The A’s, provided another highlight of the evening. The pair — Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Daughter of Swords’ Alexandra Sauser-Monnig — spent 30 minutes harmonizing in matching pink ruffled gowns, mostly singing a cappella.
The cadence of their songs verged into nursery rhyme territory at points, but remained hypnotizing and lovely even while the duo sang about death. The audience’s claps and whistles grew louder with each tune.
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Wilco has made a tradition of awarding a trophy to the best-behaved fan of the evening (for everyone else, the merch table sold red and blue participation ribbons for $15). In Clearwater, Tweedy struggled to pick just one worthy recipient.
“I’m going to need the lights up, because there’s a lot of competition tonight,” he joked.
The band disappeared before returning for an encore: “The Late Greats,” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and one final singalong, “A Shot in the Arm.”
By the end, just about everyone was up and dancing.