Concert review: Wilco at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa

click to enlarge Wilco - Andrew Silverstein
Andrew Silverstein
Wilco

It's hard to arrive at one summation of Monday night's Wilco concert at the Straz Center. [Text by Julie, photos by Andrew.]

Big "buts" keep getting in the way — the show was enchanting but uninspiring; powerful but lacking in excitement.

With their biggest, strongest, longest lineup to date, and some backup players, Wilco played a set that was intricate and full of intriguing surprises — vintage organ touches, sampled strings and even a jarring instrumental cacophony mimicking gun shots (in "Via Chicago" off Summerteeth). Format-wise, the show followed the standard formula: newer tunes, older hits and a mix of surprise oldies and crowd-pleasers for the two encores.

Atmospherics ruled the night, from the dangling white cloths that looked like strung Incan knots or a dove aviary, to multi-hued projections, which sometimes included hummingbirds and other random scenes — all by lighting and set designer Michael Brown. The poetic visuals complemented the band's spot-on mood embellishments.

Some of the set was just plain fun and nostalgic — a good representation of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, two of the band's most popular albums. Highlights included the gently resonant "Jesus, Etc.," the poppy "Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm Always in Love," "War on War" and, best of all, the anthemic "Shot in the Arm," the tune that officially woke up the audience in the Straz that night.

The night started with music from the band's newest release, 2011's The Whole Love along with other recent material, and spanned almost the entire catalog, reaching back to 1996's Being There, the expansive Southern-rock-tinged album that spawned the trifecta of tunes in the final encore: the haunting "Misunderstood," the get-me-out-of-F-L-A rocker, "Monday" and the catchy sing-along-inspiring "Outtasite," which finished the night on a rousing, upbeat note.

A few previous concerts since the tour started last week have included "I Must Be High" from the ’95 debut AM, but tunes from that seminal roots-pop record were tossed out of Tampa's setlist, maybe explained by the "Let's get this over with, please" attitude that seemed to emanate from frontman Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy didn't connect with Tampa Bay fans like he used to, so perhaps the band shouldn't be booking big rooms but instead play smaller venues for consecutive nights. The roughly 2,600-capacity Morsani — around two-thirds filled for Monday night's show — is great for The Florida Orchestra, operas and musicals, but doesn't bring out the intimacy, guts and glory of a truly good Wilco performance.

Having seen the band at four Tampa Bay shows over the past two decades, it's hard not to notice the age and complacency settling in. Tweedy used to engage us, performing requests and telling funny tour stories. In 2012, his dialogue seemed to be limited to complaints and mimicking awkward heckles, like when a woman from the front rows shouting "Fantastic!" He wouldn't let that one go. He just kept repeating it. It was funny the first time but quickly came off a bit snide and jerky. (We get it, Jeff. Your fans are middle-aged and dorky. Yeah, well, so are you.)

If he weren't so stubbornly disheveled, Tweedy would seem more like the know-it-all professor type who dons a corduroy blazer with patches on the elbows, puffs on a pipe and pontificates on why his grasp of all things musical is superior to yours.

Tweedy's smugness is justified in a way. He's led his band in performing a nearly infinite range of modern musical styles, from Southern rock to bluegrass to experimental rock to simple ballads, a whiplash-inducing shifting of gears handled deftly and performed luminously, revealing the many colors of the band's unique evolutionary spectrum.

Though the spiel is rehearsed and perhaps a bit contrived, the material is always top notch.

Setlist
I Might
Company In My Back
Handshake Drugs
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Impossible Germany
Jesus, Etc.
Born Alone
Laminated Cat (from Tweedy’s side project Loose Fur)
Summer Teeth
Via Chicago
Whole Love
I'm Always In Love
War On War
Dawned On Me
A Shot in the Arm

Encore 1:
Heavy Metal Drummer
Theologians
Walken
I'm the Man Who Loves You

Encore 2:
Misunderstood
Monday
Outtasite

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