Wilco at the 9:30 Club: The Sixth Time’s the Charm

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Sometimes even reluctant rock stars have to work for it: Not until “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the penultimate number of Wilco’s ragged-but-right set at the 9:30 Club Tuesday night, did a woman (we assume) to throw her bra at frontman Jeff Tweedy. The gesture was probably more an endorsement of the tune — a wistful evocation of the hair-band-scored summers of Tweedy’s 1980s adolescence — than a sincere come-on. (Tweedy tried to return the lacy, black thing, observing “these things are deceptively hard to throw.”) But still. Who knew that women even liked Wilco?

Actually, Tweedy appeared for once not be working so hard, and the result was warmer, funnier, and more satisfying than any local Wilco gig in years. Though the oft-shifting lineup includes virtuosos like axe-man Nels Cline and percussionist Glenn Kotche, the band, despite his denials, is still All About Tweedy. His default performance mode seems to be furrowed-brow studiousness, which sometimes gives Wilco shows an austere, prickly vibe; all head, no heart, and as for the hips, fuggedaboutit. But after a terse opening salvo that began with the gentle sway of “Was I In Your Dreams,” Tweedy, sporting a wide-brimmed fedora, was downright friendly, even taking requests. Maybe it’s because somebody in the audience gave him a very convincing-looking Grammy.

Or maybe its because he’s allowing himself to take some pride in his band’s intermittently brilliant catalogue: Earlier this month, Wilco played five nights in their hometown of Chicago, revisiting their complete studio-album songbook (less B-sides, collaborations, etc.). Thus Tuesday’s career-spanning 28-song, 135-minute set was agreeably loose, serving up giddy takes of pre-Y2K classics from Being There and Summerteeth and rarities like “Too Far Apart” and “Just a Kid. The latter was from “The Spongebob Squarepants Movie,” though you could be forgiven for thinking it was a Ramones B-side, or maybe an old Uncle Tupelo number. Either way, it rocked. Before that, they played “The Thanks I Get,” Tweedy inviting the sold-out crowd to sing along with the “we can make it better” refrain. “That’s also known as the Obama fight song,” Tweedy said, referring to some of his recent adventures on the campaign trail.

The crowd reacted with surprising warmth to five tunes from last year’s sleepy Sky Blue Sky album. Written in the midst of Tweedy’s post-rehab domestic tranquility, it’s Wilco’s least-intoxicating record. The biggest surprise of the night might have been the balls-ou four-fer from Being There that closed the main set — “Red-Eyed and Blue,” “I Got You (At the End of the Century,” “Monday,” and an audible of “Outtamind(outtasite)” — probably the only Wilco tunes you might ever have heard at a frat party — in, you know, 1999.

Setlist:

01 Was I in Your Dreams

02 Blood of the Lamb

03 You Are My Face

04 Pot Kettle Black

05 A Shot in the Arm

06 Side with the Seeds

07 Pieholden Suite

08 Impossible Germany

09 Handshake Drugs

10 Too Far Apart

11 Summerteeth

12 Jesus, Etc.

13 Walken

14 I’m the Man Who Loves You

15 Hummingbird

16 A Magazine Called Sunset

17 Red-Eyed and Blue

18 I Got You (At the End of the Century)

19 Monday

20 Outtamind(outtasite)

ENCORE #1

21 Hate It Here

22 Can’t Stand It

23 The Thanks I Get

24 Just a Kid

ENCORE #2

25 Shoulda Been in Love

26 War on War

27 Heavy Metal Drummer

28 The Late Greats

A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

UPDATE: NPR has a streamcast of the second of Wilco’s two nights at the 9:30 (and John Doe’s opening set, too, which I missed on Tuesday) here. Wilco played another 28-song set the second night, repeating only 10 tunes from night one. Pretty cool.

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