Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie is the Herald’s entertainment editor

Review: Wilco, Justin Townes Earle at the Civic

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Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. File photo / Richard Robinson
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. File photo / Richard Robinson

Third time's a charm. Wilco returned to Auckland after two previous incursions in past years - their memorable Bruce Mason Centre show in 2008 and their part in Neil Finn's 7 Worlds Collide supergroup last year, that visit also laying some of the ground for their most recent set Wilco (the album).

Its self-referential title track Wilco (the song) - with pauses for robot-voiced introductions to each of the Chicago sextet - provided a nifty opening to proceedings.

But if that start suggested the band were here to just here to plug (the album), what followed was an epic wonder of a show, one which reached back through the band's 15 years, breathed new fire into older songs and demonstrated the band's particular live magic. It's one that mixes music complexity with approachability, avant-garde meanderings with tuneful harmony, and the melancholy melody of frontman Jeff Tweedy with powerpop joy.

As good as 2008? Well maybe not quite as artful, that last performance coming off the back of the Sky Blue Sky album having the feeling of a chamber piece. But the Civic was a grander frame for this wider canvas - and the celestial ceiling set off songs like their Woody Guthrie cover California Stars, played in the encore, just so.

Tweedy let the songs do the talking for a momentum-building first half hour - the twitchy intensity of Bull Black Nova providing an early sign that something special was unfolding - before getting affable with the front rows. From there, it was one plumbing of the vast depths of the Wilco songbook after another.

True, some like Impossible Germany did risk turning into a jazz-rock odyssey in its solo sections. But guitarist Nels Cline's playing was, as ever, extraordinary, whether he was adding filigree details or sonic scorchings - or both within the same bar.

Tweedy himself impressed with his own welding torch-styled solos if not his microphone twirling technique.

While songs like Via Chicago, with its sweet balladry undercut by a thrilling cacophony reminds that drummer Glenn Kotche is very much a part of what makes Wilco such a remarkable live act.

And they were remarkable once again, even if the sold-out Civic crowd wasn't quite up to singing all of the sweetly-tuned Jesus Etc as Tweedy had hoped.

But elsewhere, the band's country-soul inflections were in evidence, especially on the dulcet harmonies of You Are My Face early on.

While the latter part of the show settled into home-straight rave-up with the likes of the Stonesy Monday, the written-in-NZ You Never Know, and the punky I'm A Wheel gave this long but brilliant night a roaring finish.

In support, lanky American country young-fogey Justin Townes Earle charmed with his prom suit, his homespun introductions and his songs which sounded either like they had been unearthed from ancient Nashville jukebox or came delivered poignant and personal.

- NZ Herald

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