thu 20/06/2024

Wilco, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Wilco, Royal Festival Hall

Wilco, Royal Festival Hall

Guitar heroes from Chicago were on stunning form

At the top of their game: Wilco, with frontman Jeff Tweedy second from right and guitarist Nels Cline far left

Rock music doesn’t get much better than this. For two hours, the raggedy Chicago band Wilco poured out song after song from a repertoire that stretches back 15 years, slipping effortlessly between gentle alt-country and avant-garde rock, between the whisperingly quiet and the crushingly loud. They were sensational, a band at the top of their game.

And thanks to the immaculate sound system, and the acoustics of this fabulous hall, loudness never tipped over into distortion; everything was there, audible in the mix.

What makes Wilco’s music special is that they straddle two worlds, one tough and coarse and discordant and menacing, the other benign and melodic. In the course of a couple of minutes, innocuous sweetness can become a tsunami of threat. It’s quite a trick. Take, for instance, a song such as “Handshake Drugs” from 2004’s A Ghost is Born album; here, to begin with, all was lightness and strummy guitars and tippy-tappy rhythms, but it ended in a demonic, howling feedback duel between Tweedy and guitarist Nels Cline. And “Impossible Germany”, from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky album, started its journey in the middle of the road and ended it somewhere out in the windswept wilds of guitarland.

Guitars, guitars, guitars; with apologies to their keyboard players (one of whom doubles on guitar), and to Tweedy himself, whose voice is a thing of plaintive, soulful beauty, Wilco are essentially all about guitars - guitars that bend and blend and mesh and thrash and thrum and roar. When they let rip, they make a noise that’s utterly glorious. Tweedy, who seemed happier and funnier and more garrulous than I’ve seen him previously, could be seen smiling a quiet smile of satisfaction at such moments, when everything clicked, among them the Beatles-esque “I Hate it Here”, the poppy “Misunderstood”, the breezy, urgent “You Never Know”.

This seemed to be a set in which the band were dwelling on past glories more than current material; last year’s Wilco (The Album) was under-represented. Nor, surprisingly, did they play the crowd-pleasing favourite, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. Perhaps it’s become a cliché, a chore. Whatever: I didn’t miss it.

A word, too, about Cline, who for my money is one of the world’s top guitarists: like Richard Thompson, he uses the full range of the fretboard, rather than just doing the twiddly-diddly top-end stuff, and here his fingers ranged with marvellous unpredictability, constantly seeking out new patterns and shapes, casting off little flurries of notes, as well as issuing a range of weird, whooshy, clattery noises and effects. There is no one else like him.

And finally, a word about the support act, Radiohead drummer Phil Selway. Assisted by a band of terrific multi-taskers (one of whom played the viola, the keyboard and the saw), this rather sweet and somewhat shy and nerdy man, standing out front with an acoustic guitar, showcased songs from his new solo album, Familial; gentle, delicate, instrumentally diverse, and sung by Selway in his fragile, high-register voice, it seemed to me to be very English, in the manner of quieter Pink Floyd, or Brian Eno. Selway repeatedly thanked Wilco for allowing him to support them, which was really rather touching given that he is a member of a globe-conquering rock act; anyway, he seemed genuinely honoured, privileged.

It was lovely stuff, but it wasn’t a patch on the main attraction. Wilco’s years of experience could be heard in the samurai-sword sharpness of their playing, and could be seen in the intuitive understanding between the band’s six members, in their quiet confidence. Trust me, rock music doesn’t get much better than this.

Overleaf: watch Wilco's "On and On and On"

Guitars, guitars, guitars; with apologies to their keyboard players (one of whom doubles on guitar), Wilco are essentially all about guitars

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Forever destined to be cultish, probably, but 'best live band' moniker has been theirs for some years now. I own everything they've ever released but get so much more pleasure listening to the many quality live recordings knocking around inc the official ones. Reinvention/evolution of older songs in live setting is inspirational. Great, great band, wonderful back catalogue. Check out fan site 'Via Chicago' - worth a browse.

I have seen them many times over the years but they just seem to get better and better in a live situation. Last night's show was simply magical. They sounded so perfect at times that it was almost a relief that Tweedy broke a string during Someday, Some Morning, Sometime and stopped the song for a guitar change. It proved they were still of this world! Wonderful band, wonderful show.

Really enjoyed it last night, but I thought Nels' guitar was too low in the mix. Maybe it was just me, we were in the balcony, but I couldn't hear him shredding quite as well as I wanted to. Having said that, the rest of the mix was so good I could hear every nuance.

As a Wilco fan stretching back to Being There, I was not alone in finding the evening disappointingly brash and brutal with the latter half of virtually every song being a crescendo of instruments, all cranked up to the maximum. A little more light and shade would have been appreciated - after all this is what Wilco are all about. That said, some of the offerings were brilliant, particularly in relation to the percussion (which has always made them stand out). The comment about Nels ' guitar being too low in the mix is spot on (I was also in the balcony, where many around me seemed less than enthused about the show). I still think they're the best band around, but not on Tuesday night.

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