Concert review: Wilco, Mavis Staples

By Russell Baillie

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Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Photo / NZ Herald
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Photo / NZ Herald

It's been ten years since Wilco - the Chicago band who have become standard bearers for rustic American art-rock - first popped into town. Back then, they were way down the bill on a secondary stage at the 2003 Big Day Out. From memory, frontman Jeff Tweedy was not in the best mood that day: "We went to Waiheke yesterday," he deadpanned to small crowd before him, "that's our anecdote."

But now on their fourth New Zealand visit - fifth if you count the time Tweedy and three bandmates spent in 2008 on Neil Finn's second Seven Worlds Collide project - here was Wilco in front of a packed Auckland Town Hall finishing off the Down Under tour for 2011 album The Whole Love and having an infectiously good time. Their past NZ shows had been intense sit-down chamber-rock affairs. With a big standing huddle down the front, and the galleries filled above, this one felt sweatier, friendlier and more celebratory. A chatty funny Tweedy sure had more than one anecdote, and even made friends with the security woman standing at his feet.

In a show of 20 or so songs drawing from eight studio albums, Wilco managed a deft flick through the songbook, even heading back to largely unloved 1995 debut A.M.

- Shouldn't Be Ashamed and Box Full of Letters sounded positively Tom Petty-esque among a setlist big on the band's more warped music of recent years since 2002 breakthrough left-turn album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

This was a show that neatly married the past to the present elsewhere too.

Especially with opener gospel-soul veteran Mavis Staples - whose Grammy winning most recent album You Are Not Alone Tweedy produced - and band getting the evening off to an uplifting start and ensuring no-one present would be feeling guilty about not making it to church the next day.

Her short but sweet set drew from all over - from the Staples Singers' Freedom Highway which her father "Pop" Staples penned for Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights era to You Are Not Alone, a duet with Tweedy that is the album title track. And by the closing I'll Take You There, the 73 year-old had turned a Wilco audience into her own congregation.

Mavis and her band returned at the end of the night too, to join Wilco for the encore last song a tag-team take on The Band's The Weight. Her family band had covered the song themselves and sang it on Martin Scorsese's swansong concert movie for The Band, The Last Waltz. Even without that rock history behind it, it made for quite a finale.

Earlier in the Wilco set, Tweedy joshed about the night's Mavis-factor: " You've already got your money's worth. We're off the hook ... "

But if Wilco's night had ended with comfortable echoes of in 1976, it started somewhere far more dangerous and contemporary with Art of Almost, The Whole Love's opening track, a hefty gear-shifting funky metallic slab of 21st century psychedelia which is light years away from those A.M. days and among the nuttier things Wilco has ever done.

It was a terrific start to a set, a quarter of which was devoted to the most recent album, but which throughout rode the band's idiosyncratic line between heart v art from past releases.

Among those were an early Via Chicago with its singer-songwriter ballad stuck in a recurring thunderstorm ; Impossible Germany when the song gave over to display of guitar aerobatics led by the band's resident fretboard avant-gardist Nels Cline; or Jesus Etc its tender tune and words sung largely by the audience.

And with the runaway energy of the final songs of the main set - Dawned On Me, Heavy Metal Drummer and A Shot In the Arm - this fourth Wilco incursion was one make one worry about a possible fifth: Like, how are they going to top that?

Who: Wilco, Mavis Staples

Where: Auckland Town Hall

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