- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

Welcome to the dialectic of Wilco: Pretty melodies and cacophonous guitars. Carefully modulated arrangements within a chaos of electrification.

Or something like that.

Wilco is becoming a magnet for critical pretensions, and merely to look at the Chicago band Wednesday night at the 9:30 Club — a jam-packed, two-hour-and-change show that was broadcast live over the Internet — was to worry: Do these guys have any fun anymore? Does Wilco consider the giddy country rock of its first album, “A.M.,” to be an embarrassing, pimply adolescence?

Singer-guitarist Jeff Tweedy was dressed in an undertaker’s black suit. (“I just got back from Reagan’s funeral,” he blasphemed.) Keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen wore an intellectual’s eyewear and fingered a laptop. Guitarist and resident noise machine Nels Cline concentrated hard, like a master welder, as he drew feedback from his amplifier.

Pat Sansone, a variety noisemaker on guitar and keys, was off in a corner to himself, not very audible but very, very serious.

Mr. Tweedy managed to crack the odd smile or joke, and he looked to be in jam ecstasy playing noisy guitar solos and shaking his shaggy mop of hair. But John Stirratt, the bassist and, besides Mr. Tweedy, the last original Wilcoite, was the only guy up there with a consistent “I have the greatest job on the planet” stage presence.

If they gave out graduate degrees for alternative rock, then Wilco deserves Ph.Ds.

The band played its forthcoming album, “A Ghost Is Born,” nearly in its entirety, and, luckily, it’s a good one, from the quiet, brittle “Muzzle of Bees” to the McCartney-fied rocker “I’m A Wheel” to the Gerry Rafferty-like groove of “Handshake Drugs.” The most impressive thing about Wilco, as a live sextet, is how uncluttered its soundscape is. It does quiet well — which makes the more frenzied interludes of punk noise all the more effective.

Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album also got heavy treatment, including songs such as “Poor Places,” “Radio Cure” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which required sample reproductions from Mr. Jorgensen’s PowerBook.

The pop gem “Heavy Metal Drummer” required only nostalgia: “I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned.” Anything from before 2002 was gravy: the druggy “Shot in the Arm,” which had the club singing in unison, “There’s something in my veins/Bloodier than blood”; the singalong beauty “California Stars,” from Wilco and Billy Bragg’s Woody Guthrie project “Mermaid Avenue”; a stone gorgeous encore of “The Lonely 1.” The one and only airing from “A.M.,” Wilco’s long-ago debut, was “Passenger Side,” a paean to drunken driving.

Those were the days: Wilco, gay and frivolous.

The band has lost its inner honky-tonk for sure, but in its place, it’s found something better: its own voice, original, daring at times, often poetic.

Here’s hoping, however, that Mr. Tweedy — and whoever enters through Wilco’s revolving door — stays on this side of the prog-rock cloister.

Because we miss that innocence, too.

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