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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Fog
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Wilco plays dramatic, generous set at Overture Hall
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Tweedy's strong voice has a pleasing density to it these days.
Credit:Kirsten Earley

Wilco, America's shiniest rock object, showed up for work Saturday night at 8:30 on the dot. High expectations among the sold-out Overture Hall crowd had soared even higher Friday with news that the group would live stream their Madison performance. Would the boys bring it even harder with world-wide screens blinking?

The answer is yes. The multi-age crowd watched Wilco's most generous set so far this tour. A whopping 28 songs included tunes harvested from at least six of the band's records.

Wilco has always been lead singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy. Until now. Lead guitarist Nels Cline has fused himself so completely, so organically, into the band's dramatic music. His side of the stage was set up like a miniature guitar lab: instrument cabinet cradling six axes, pedals, loop boxes, pre-amps, mixers. All of which helped him conjure a sonic soup that makes Wilco provocative even when he's playing in the shadow of the melody.

During "Impossible Germany," Cline's shimmering notes exploded from his guitar like pieces from a broken mirror. He was so fearless in his playing of this number, turning it into a therapy session, wresting emotion from, and thrusting it into, his solo break. His hands are huge, the left one suffocating the neck. Yet delicate music, together with bombastic, when called for, comes from them.

He's a patient player, too, but it was fun watching as he became more and more aroused when the music emerged from his intense soloing and landed softly back onto the pillow of the familiar melody.

Tweedy's strong voice has a pleasing density to it these days. It's like it's made of the same wood as his guitars. This is true even when he sings falsetto, which he did quite a bit last night. Still, one of the most fun moments of the program was when Tweedy handed the vocals of "Jesus, etc." over to the audience for a round of Wilco-oke.

The audience nailed it. All through it Tweedy played guitar with an outlaw grin, mouthing the words to prompt the singing. The band brought the entire arrangement down three notches so that the audience vocals fit the mix as perfectly as if the arrangement had been worked out in sound check.

New Orleans native, bassist John Stirratt, is a talented composer in his own right. His composer ear guides him on the bass and with his singing. Wilco songs are angular and dry. Stirratt's harmony vocals are as important to the making of them as anything, especially since he's really the only other voice of the band besides Tweedy.

Stirratt's singing on the loping "Hate It Here" poured salt into the wound of the song's lonely character, abandoned and out of ideas.

Fellow Chicagoans Califone opened the night and then returned to the stage late in Wilco's set to help bring "California Stars." Extended soloing didn't get in the way of the song's gorgeous lullaby sound. Instead it softened it even more. The presentation had a show-ender feel to it, but no. There were five more songs to come.

Tweedy dedicated "Walken" to his wife. It was as psychedelic as folk pop gets. The telecasted, urgent dot-dot-dot guitar preamble in the song crashed with tension. Then, like so many of Tweedy's tunes, the music sailed into safe places, briefly, before it turns back out to rough seas.

Tweedy looks pretty rough but seems to be more sprightly than ever. Somewhere along the line people made up their mind that he was a stage curmudgeon, and that was based partly in fact. But he's clearly digging performing live now. It always amuses me that people shout requests at acts like Wilco, a band that sticks to its set list for a reason. It must be a compliment to have your life's work shouted at you.

I heard from a few people during the show that the live stream was a technical bust. Too bad. If only Internet fans could have seen Tweedy lead the band through the ferocious take of "Heavy Metal Drummer," brush stroking his slotted-head 12 string, audience members smiling like cult recruits, drinking beer from their Overture tippy cups.

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