Front-and-center with Wilco since the band formed a quarter-century ago, Jeff Tweedy has become something that seemed unlikely back then: a great bandleader. Taking the reins after Jay Farrar left precursor band Uncle Tupelo in the early ’90s, Tweedy presided over a wave of personnel changes in Wilco’s first decade. But he’s now kept the current lineup together for 15 years, and that stability has helped them get big enough to fill ACL Live for two nights.
They’ll return Sunday after a Saturday evening show that found the band focusing on its new album "Ode to Joy," released earlier this month. Nine of the record’s 11 tracks made it into the 30-song set, which featured 60 percent different material from the band’s last visit to Austin at Bass Concert Hall two years ago.
Tweedy, who released a couple of solo records between Wilco’s 2016 set "Schmilco" and the band’s latest, wrote all of the songs on "Ode to Joy," naturally making his voice and lyrics a focal point. But in concert, what stands out is just how much the players around him make Wilco what it is.
That’s especially true for guitarist Nels Cline, whose nimble, creative solos and occasional cataclysm-of-noise outbursts consistently punctuated songs both new and old with such dominance that you could be forgiven if you thought Wilco was first and foremost HIS band. And maybe it is, in some respects. If so, the boss seems just fine with that. Recognizing his limitations — he’s always been an average singer at best — Tweedy understands just how much the sounds that surround him are the essence of Wilco’s art.
A friend noted mid-show that "every single one of these guys can hit clean-up," and that’s pretty much true. Flanking stage left opposite Cline, versatile musician Pat Sansone colored the music with melodic flair on keyboards, guitars, banjo and xylophone. Mikael Jorgenson kept essential keyboard backing in place when Sansone was on other instruments. Glenn Kotche’s drumming is a secret weapon, always lively and plenty powerful when called for. Bassist John Stirratt, who’s been at Tweedy’s side in Wilco since day one, anchors the bridge between rhythm and melody while adding key vocal harmonies in several spots.
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Beyond the emphasis on the new album, Saturday’s set revealed some intriguing insights into back-catalog preferences of Tweedy and his bandmates. They played three songs from their 2001 breakthrough album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," most splendidly the atmospheric album-closer "Reservations." And they back-loaded the encore with time-tested crowd favorites from 1996’s "Being There," closing the night with the carnivalesque rocker "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." But it was 2004’s "A Ghost Is Born," the band’s only Grammy-winning record, that they mined the most, playing six of its tracks and getting much of the crowd to sing along on the graceful "Theologians."
The rest was like a sampler tour of the band’s full career. They played at least one song off of all 11 records they’ve made, plus the Woody Guthrie co-write "California Stars" from their 1998 "Mermaid Avenue" collaboration with Billy Bragg. Highlights included the "Summerteeth" gem "Via Chicago," its exquisite melody all decked out in bursts of noise that exemplified Wilco’s hallmark juxtaposition of beauty and damage; "Box Full of Letters," a rootsy rocker from 1995’s "A.M." that still connects long after the band’s evolution from its alt-country origins; and the piece de resistance "Impossible Germany," which is like an impossible guitar army in the way Cline weaves above, around and all over Tweedy and Sansone’s accompanying six-string swirls.
Another standout was the sweet pop confection "You and I," with opening act Molly Sarle handling the female duet-vocal part that Canadian singer Feist sang on 2009’s "Wilco (The Album)." Sarle was a fine choice as tour opener, playing a brief (30 minutes) but thoroughly enjoyable set of melodic indie-rock backed by a three-piece band that included a drummer named Austin Vaughn (just one letter from being perfect for the Antone’s house band). Her easygoing banter with the crowd was well-received, particularly a bit about rising to breakfast tacos at Juan in a Million on Saturday morning. Come back soon now, y’hear?
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1. Bright Leaves
2. Before Us
3. Company in My Back
4. War on War
5. One and a Half Stars
6. If I Ever Was A Child
7. Handshake Drugs
8. At Least That’s What You Said
10. You and I (with Molly Sarle)
11. White Wooden Cross
12. Via Chicago
13. Bull Black Nova
14. Random Name Generator
16. We Were Lucky
17. Love Is Everywhere (Beware)
18. Impossible Germany
19. Dawned on Me
20. Box Full of Letters
21. Everyone Hides
23. I’m the Man Who Loves You
24. Hold Me Anyway
25. The Late Greats
26. An Empty Corner
27. California Stars
28. Red-Eyed and Blue
29. I Got You (At the End of the Century)
30. Outtasite (Outta Mind)