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Monday, Dec. 12, 2011

Wilco w/ Nick Lowe @ The Riverside Theater

Dec. 9, 2011

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The first song at a big concert is a give-me. In those moments right after the house lights go down, there's so much bottled excitement in the crowd that the headliners can get away with playing just about anything, even songs that might otherwise have fans shifting in their seats or heading for the bathrooms. Wilco took advantage of that capital Friday night, opening their sold-out show at the Riverside Theater with an unhurried rendition of "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," the slow-drifting folk shuffle that closes the band's latest album, The Whole Love, with an extended, 12-minute sigh. It wasn't a dance-in-the-aisles showstopper—those would come later in the set—but it was a fitting opener for a band that has so happily settled into a comfortable groove over the last several years.

Ten years ago Wilco was a very different band. Back then, singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy was a more troubled soul and a more temperamental bandleader, burning bridges with scorned band mates as he pushed the boundaries of what a rock record could be. Tweedy's nearly-century experiments were driven, at least in part, by subversion—the desire of a great pop songwriter to distance himself from his listeners, if not to rile them a bit, but by 2007's Sky Blue Sky he had curbed those impulses. This new, friendlier Jeff Tweedy is unlikely to tuck 10 minutes of harsh noise onto a record, as he did on 2004's A Ghost Is Born. The most shocking thing about Wilco's last three records has been how completely disinterested in shocking they are.

And so Friday night Tweedy and his band did what they do best: They pleased, delighting the crowd with a generous, 26-song set list. At times it was perhaps a bit too generous, since eight of those songs came from the band's good yet rarely great new record, but that new material didn't come at the expense of fan favorites. Like most Wilco shows, this one made plenty of room for staples from 1996's Being There, the group's most purely rocking album, with those rockers accompanied by bigger-than-ever, theater-flooding light cues. And if Tweedy didn't pander to the city quite as aggressively as he did during Wilco's 2009 shows at the Pabst Theater—part of a nearly week-long Milwaukee charm offensive that included throwing out the first pitch at a Brewers game, then waving around a Brewers cap onstage for easy cheers—he still said all the right things. "You're like a part of our extended hometown," the Chicagoan told the audience, "our kinder, gentler hometown."

The band was joined on this tour by one of rock 'n' roll's all-time class acts, British songwriter Nick Lowe, whose grandfatherly frame has done nothing to diminish his sophisticated cool. The vast Riverside Theater was "a big step up from Shank Hall, where I'm often found to be playing," said the 62-year-old, who clearly relished the chance to perform for a larger, younger crowd than the usual clusters of longtime fans that typically make up his audiences. He had plenty of wisdom to share with these rapt listeners. Imagining who Buddy Holly might have grown into had he lived to see his golden years, Lowe shimmied his way through a set of charming songs about how getting older doesn't necessarily mean feeling much different than you did in your youth.