Show Review: Wilco and Okkervil River at The Greek Theater in Berkeley, 6/27/09

by Dakin Hardwick on June 29, 2009

Wilco. Not pictured: Berkeley.

Wilco. Not pictured: Berkeley.

I’ve seen a lot of bands in my day.  I’ve seen a lot of very famous people, and I have been very close to them.  I often think that I am immune to the surprise of seeing someone in the flesh that I primarily know from pictures, but Jeff Tweedy is one of those frontpersons that has such a unique charisma, that I my heart skips a beat whenever I see him. 

It was relatively calm when leading up to Wilco taking the stage. Okkervil River opened the show, and played a more than passable set.  I’ve always felt that the lead singer, Will Sheff, reminded me of the Old 97’s Rhett Miller, in voice, stage presence, and lyrical style.  The band is pretty basic indie-rock, with a hint of country music mixed in.  Recent addition Lauren Gurgiolo helped amp up and flesh out the sound by adding banjo, slide guitar, and aggressive distorted guitar to the mix whenever the song could use it.

Wilco came out at 8:45 on the nose, grabbed their instruments, and ran head first into Wilco (The Album) opener “Wilco (The Song)”, a driving number about the great positive effect on the power of the music of Wilco.  The early portion of the set leaned heavily on the new record, but also retained the general flow of the new record, which alternates between driving rock songs and somber ballads, and normally I don’t like when bands administer such an abrupt mood change, but in performance, as well as on record, it feels more like a journey in to the mind of someone who is mildly schizophrenic, and taking you along for the ride to show you what it’s like.

The crowd was enthusiastic, dancing to the rock songs, singing along to every word, even the more obscure songs! Yet, the biggest responses of the night came from songs off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album that broke Wilco from obscurity to mainstream success by being the first record to be streamed on the internet for free in it’s entirety before it had a label to release it.  That tactic worked, primarily because it’s a great record with no filler.

Roughly, the first hour of the show was very professional. They played their songs with expert precision, without addressing the crowd, but they didn’t seem to need to.  Then, somebody fainted.  Jeff Tweedy stopped the band, and asked the audience to help the guy up.  After the guy was helped up, he gave the band a thumbs up, and they band started to play again, and after a few moments, Jeff gave a weird look, and stopped the band again.  He said, “Hey man, you really don’t look so good… Let’s get you some air.”  Security helped him through the crowd and found him a spot a little less crowded, albeit a but further from the stage.  Somehow, this marked a shift in mood from professional to silly.  The songs ended up getting stretched out a bit, with the band borderlining on jam band territory, which isn’t a bad thing when Nels Cline is your guitar player.   Every few songs, Mr. Tweedy had something silly or strange to say.  He complained about fans in LA saying “Thank You” at the end of each song, as opposed to clapping.  He yelled at the crowd for turning his song in to hippie, then brought his son out wearing head-to-toe tie-dye pajamas.  Nels, Jeff, and Pat Sansome started doing semi-choreographed guitar poses and drummer Glenn Kotche would occasionally play standing up.  We were now in full-fledge rock show mode.  Even the crowd, which was once merely excited, was pogoing, hair was flying… To borrow from Spinal Tap, things were turned up to 11.

They ended the main set with “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, and he dedicated it to his wife, then muttered aloud, “What ever are we gonna do about our son!”, who popped out from backstage again in his tie-dye pjs, seemingly having more fun with this bit than his dad.  In an abrupt shift in mood from the silly intro, he sang the song while staring directly at his wife, who was sitting at the soundboard.  It was an intense & special moment.  Knowing what the last few years have been like for Tweedy (suicide attempts, a stint in rehab, getting sued by former band members, former band members committing suicide during the process of suing, etc…), it would have been a strain on any marriage, but their bond seems very tight.  It was a moment like few others I have witnessed on stage.

The band came back for a 6-song encore, which is a lot, but after reading some of the other setlists on the tour, it was the shortest encore of the bunch.  The encore was heavier on the classic Wilco sound, which is lighter on the experimental Neil Young-inspired noise, and heavier on the punky-alt.country sound the defined the band in it’s earlier days.  One great bit of inspired showmanship came when Tweedy went in to the crowd to have somebody strum the solo to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” while Tweedy played the chords.

The band walked off stage, and after about 10 minutes of yelling and screaming for more, Tweedy’s son came back one last time, still dressed in his now-signature outfit, to throw picks out.  For those keeping track, the show ended at 11:15, giving us 2 1/2 hours.  Not a single mention of Jay Bennett’s passing, nor Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett, or Ed McMahon.  Just pure, inspired goodness from the band that loves you.

Set List (from lastfm.com):

Wilco (The Song)
Muzzle of Bees
A Shot In The Arm
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Bull Black Nova
At Least That’s What You Said
Radio Cure
Deeper Down
You Are My Face
California Stars
One Wing
Impossible Germany
Can’t Stand It
Jesus, Etc.
Handshake Drugs
Hate it Here
Walken
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Encore:
You Never Know
The Late Greats
Box Full of Letters
Misunderstood
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Hoodoo Voodoo

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John July 1, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Great summary – thanks!

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