Whatever your opinion of Wilco, its members can’t be accused of pandering. At a sold-out Orpheum Theater on Monday (Sept. 28), frontman Jeff Tweedy and his bandmates strolled onstage, took up their instruments and, with nary a word of explanation or even acknowledgement, proceeded to perform their new “Star Wars” album in its entirety, front to back.
“Star Wars,” the Chicago alternative rock band’s ninth studio album, was released without any prior warning, for free, via Wilco’s web site on July 16; it has subsequently come out on CD. Not nearly enough time has elapsed for “Star Wars” to settle in with anyone but the most devoted disciples. And as with any album, some tracks are stronger than others; some are left out of set lists for good reason. But such is the mutual respect between Wilco and its audience that the latter is generally willing to indulge the former. Fans are confident that, if they are willing to be challenged with something other than a greatest hits recital, their patience will be rewarded. At the Orpheum, it certainly was.
Wilco, as it turned out, was just getting started with the complete “Star
Wars” presentation. Over the course of 31 songs and two-and-a-half hours, they ranged across the full extent of their repertoire, from alternative country to heavy, triple-guitar attacks. They eventually ended not with a bang, but a whisper.
Their set on the opening day of the 2015 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell was cut short by lightning. There would be no such interruptions as Wilco became the first rock band to rattle the rafters of the newly reopened Orpheum Theater. A multi-million-dollar, post-Hurricane Katrina renovation has fully revived the sumptuous theater, from the ornate, hand-painted moldings to the gleaming marble staircases.
On Monday, some 1,400 fans sat in the steeply stacked balconies and stood on the sloping cement floor. The sound of a fully amplified rock band does not always translate well to a venue originally designed for acoustic performances. But Orpheum’s audio fared far better than some other local theaters in the early stages of their rebirth.
The noticeable lack of cell phone usage during the show hinted at the audience’s prevailing demographic; teens and 20-somethings were in relatively short supply. The local music community turned out in force: Musicians, festival staffers, even longtime House of Blues talent buyer Sonny Schneidau, who recently announced his intention to move on after 22 years on the job.
Some were on hand to support Wilco bassist John Stirratt, who was born in New Orleans and graduated from Mandeville High School. Stirratt has stood alongside Tweedy for Wilco’s entire 21 year history, the only other remaining original member.
He and his bandmates went to work with “More…,” the first full-fledged song on “Star Wars.” Tweedy wore his unconventional voice — sometimes reedy, sometimes purposefully hesitant – as comfortably as his cowboy hat; it held its own amidst slashing guitars and crashing drums. For the country-tinged “Taste the Ceiling,” guitarist Nels Cline switched to lap steel guitar. Just as quickly, the ensemble switched back to the full-bore rock of “Pickled Ginger.”
After 40 minutes, they’d finished “Star Wars,” and Tweedy was ready to greet the people. “Hello. That was our new album, ‘Star Wars.’ Thank you for listening to it.”
With that, they plunged into the Wilco catalog with the chiming “Handshake Drugs,” a fan favorite. They rummaged through “Box Full of Letters,” a chiseled bit of smart, melodic guitar pop from the band’s 1995 debut album, “A.M.,” followed by another old favorite, “Heavy Metal Drummer.” In between, Tweedy acknowledged his father’s 82nd birthday.
Cline’s peeling lap steel laced an understated “Jesus, etc.” He
swapped to electric six-string to construct an epic, three-dimensional solo across the back side of “Impossible Germany”; at the other end of the stage, Tweedy squared off with guitarist Pat Sansone as the steady back-and-forth action of drummer Glenn Kotche’s right wrist kept the whole thing moving along on pace. “Airline to Heaven,” from Wilco’s collaboration with folk artist Billy Bragg, gave way to the bash-and-pop of “The Late Greats,” which closed the regular set. An encore of the bracing “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” continued in that electric mode.
Some fans then headed for the exits, prematurely as it turned out. The six musicians returned for an entirely different mini-set, marked by hushed vocals, acoustic guitars, banjo, lap steel and, as deployed by keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, a melodica. (The small, hand-held, wind-blown instrument with a keyboard is enjoying something of a renaissance, thanks to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jonathan Batiste’s patronage.)
In “Misunderstood,” Kotche raised a racket by using shakers as drumsticks. Stirratt, who contributed harmony and backing vocals alongside Tweedy all night, took a rare turn as lead singer for his own, plaintive “It’s Just That Simple,” the only non-Tweedy composition on “A.M.” The crowd, happy to be on familiar, if unplugged, ground, sang along lustily for the final “A Shot in the Arm”: “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm!” Or a song you already know by heart.