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Just moments after Wilco’s enigmatic guitarist Nels Cline had peeled the paint off the walls inside UC Davis' Mondavi Center with a little psychedelic freakout on "Impossible Germany," front man Jeff Tweedy pulled out the line of the night:
"You know, something just occurred to me - the guy yelling 'Free Bird!' might help explain the pepper spray incident."
Ohhh, too soon?
Tweedy asked that too, amidst the smattering of "ohhh's" and groans that were peppered (zing!) in with the laughter and the applause - although there seemed to be a resounding agreement that a little aerosol Tabasco to the face would be an appropriate response for a guy who apparently still thinks it's cool or funny to yell "Free Bird!" at a rock concert.
For a band with its roots in Chicago to quip about Pepper-gate, it was a bit of an unfortunate reminder that, at least for now, that's what Davis is going to have to be known for in wider circles. But if Mondavi Center keeps holding shows like the two hours of sheer rock and roll bliss that Wilco hammered out on Wednesday night, Davis might just earn itself a reputation as a concert destination, and not as the place where Occupy went horribly wrong.
There is no doubt that it was "the place to be" on this particular night. Everyone was running into someone they knew in a building that many in the room had likely never been to before. I even ran into Spence from Bay Area up-and-comers The Stone Foxes (and by “ran into” I mean fanboy-ed in the merch line).
Though an absolutely stunning and acoustically pristine hall, Mondavi Center was not conceived specifically for this kind of thing. It’s a concert hall. Rock shows don't typically have ushers in ties, they don't have flickering lights in the lobby to notify that the show is about to start, and they definitely don't have a recorded voice on the loudspeaker reminding you to turn off your cell phones right before opener White Denim took the stage right at 8 p.m. for a sneaky-awesome set of experimental psych pop.
(Image by: Rik Keller)
Even the applause after each of White Denim's songs had that "concert hall" sound to it - no yelps, just clapping, like we had just heard a movement of Mahler's Fifth performed by the Hipster Symphony Orchestra.
"The Question" was lingering so heavy in the air you could cut it with safety scissors, even as Wilco was strolling onto the stage precisely at 9 p.m.:
Do we stand, or do we have to sit?
After some collective hesitation, the immediate answer was "stand!" That lasted about 30 seconds, until Tweedy & Co. surprisingly opted to start the show with the intensely beautiful but very mellow 12-minute ballad "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)." That tune is, unequivocally, a sit-down song.
There was no immediate cue to stand again even as Wilco completed an opening trifecta of tunes from 2011’s delicious “The Whole Love,” with the chunky, Radiohead-ish rumble of “The Art of Almost” and skippy pop ballad “I Might.”
But they weren’t Trying to Break Your Heart by playing just new stuff all night, digging into their catalog from way back, to their masterpiece “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and up through the self-titled album, with an continual array of images being broadcast onto a sprawling tapestry of what looked like ghosts made out of tissue by third-graders as a Halloween project. (Hmm, a ghost is born?).
With a band that sports a catalog as extensive as Wilco’s, there will inevitably be allegiances on all ends of the spectrum at any show. You’ll have people that only got into them from “Sky Blue Sky,” and those who will claim to have seen them play in an ice cream parlor in Chicago with only seven other people there, no electricity, and before Jeff Tweedy was even born. Oh, and Coldplay opened the show, too.
Wherever your particular allegiances lie, the newer songs from “The Whole Love” shone intensely bright at this performance. It can be argued that many Wilco fans like Wilco for the slower country-tinged acoustic balladry – and really the only two such songs of the night were “Sunday” and the stirring “Black Moon,” both from “Whole Love.”
That said, the entirety of the show was pure bliss, with Mondavi’s razor-sharp acoustics allowing a razor-sharp group of musicians to sound as good as you’ll ever hear them for what had to have been the most intense two hours in the venue’s history.
It was about an hour and a half in, just after the jazzy number “Capitol City,” before Tweedy proclaimed that “it’s going to be weird to play this song with you all sitting down.”
Floodgates: Opened. “Heavy Metal Drummer:” Killer.
The “other” line of the night came when Tweedy congratulated an audience member down front for “having the most pens in your pocket I’ve ever seen at a rock show.” The fan, who went by “Ramon,” happily handed one of his pens to Tweedy from the front of the stage.
Keeping it visible in his back pocket, and at times victoriously brandishing it like a sword, Tweedy promised to thank the fan in case he ended up writing a song with it – because “I feel like there’s a song in this pen.”
The pen is mightier than the FreeBird.
Up next for Mondavi Center is Florence + the Machine on April 18 and The Shins on April 23, as the venue continues to get more looks for rock shows from Another Planet Entertainment. Might such gleaming rock and roll nights, like Wednesday night with Wilco, become more of the norm…?
Wilco's Mondavi Center Setlist - February 1, 2012:
One Sunday Morning
Art Of Almost
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
You Are My Face
Laminated Cat (electric arrangement)
Side With The Seeds
On and On and On
Heavy Metal Drummer
I'm The Man Who Loves You
Box Full Of Letters
War On War
Dawned On Me
A Shot in the Arm
The Late Greats
I'm A Wheel
Image by: Rik Keller Image by: Rik Keller Image by: Rik Keller Image by: Rik Keller Image by: Rik Keller Image by: Rik Keller Image by: Rik Keller