What’s that thing that guitarists do in concert, where they get real close, face-to-face, and gaze down intently as if sizing up the other's instrument? The sort of maneuver that the Traveling Wilburys probably did on almost every occasion, in a full circle formation? Does it serve a purpose? Timing perhaps?
While Wilco’s Nels Cline was having his standout moment Saturday, taking his time delivering his solo for “Impossible Germany” off of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, the other guitarists were communing at center stage, giving each other a Wilbury. At the moment, it seemed that the show – the second of two nights at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre – was dangerously close to veering into jam band territory.
Luckily, as much as Wilco gets indulgent at times – going extra long on a solo or an outro – the songs are the opposite of improvised. That the band’s live performances so closely resemble the album versions is impressive, given how structured and varied the songs are on record. Only listen to recordings, and one could assume that a lot of the music is overdubbed, until seeing the band live and discovering that on tracks like “Misunderstood,” all that percussion is purely drummer Glenn Kotche, whose bass drum seemed extra powerful Saturday night.
Seeing Wilco more than once, there are things you come to expect. “Misunderstood” will have a shout along coda of potentially endless “Nothing”s. “Via Chicago” will see the band’s alternation between harmony and noise exaggerated to an extreme, with the guitarists in the front strumming and carrying on, seemingly oblivious to a blaring interjection of distorted noise created by the rest of the band behind. It would be tiresome if it wasn’t so well done.
At the same time, new material was given deserving attention and time in the set. Singer Jeff Tweedy started soft with a tender rendition of “One Sunday Morning,” the closing track from 2011’s The Whole Love, before building the intensity with the opening track from that same album, “Art of Almost.” It was an immediate showcase of the band’s range, and the live recreation of the shifting “Art of Almost” was particularly electric, complete with the synchronized pulsing strobes accompanying the driving, snare-cracking build that happens near the five minute mark.
Maybe the band just seemed particularly tight since I was comparatively sober. And apparently not alone. “The wind must be blowing out tonight, because I don’t smell nearly as much mari-joo-wanna tonight,” Jeff Tweedy said, adding “No, that’s good for me. I’m still high from last night.”
Elsewhere in his brief mic breaks Tweedy took the time to both thank the Bay Area crowd for “inventing concerts” and also praise the always endearing Jonathan Richman, who Tweedy called one of 12 American originals, along with Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Louie Armstrong, Woody Guthrie and “the dude from Night Ranger."
Richman opened the evening with perpetually stoic drummer Tommy Larkins. Tweedy is right, and it’s always great to see Richman, but given the opportunity, catch him at a smaller venue like the Makeout Room, where he seems to leach the life force and feed off the crowd in an intimate setting. Saturday night was sadly lacking in age-defying roundhouse kicks.