By David Menconi
DURHAM -- At least once in your life, you've probably had a conversation you spent way too much time thinking about beforehand. Probably an argument, definitely a confrontation; and once it started, it quickly veered off-course from your script and into unanticipated areas, leaving you frustrated and spluttering.
Wilco's best songs are like that. Playing for a packed house at the Durham Performing Arts Center Saturday night, Wilco laid down a nearly three-hour set that went from placid to manic and back again and again and again. It was an excellent, occasionally exhausting show.
Frontman Jeff Tweedy's anguished everyman yelp is the desperate voice of a man trapped in the grip of apocalyptic forces beyond his control, even if he triggered them himself. Typically, Tweedy begins most songs struggling to maintain a veneer of cool -- only to have things come unhinged by the time the chorus rolls around.
The instrumental voice of that chaos is Wilco lead guitarist Nels Cline, one of the best emotive-guitar foils around. Building up from lilting chimes to rapid fusillades of notes, Cline's guitar solos are the sound of a mind unspooling and going into shock. That might not sound appealing, but it was absolutely stunning to witness.
Wilco has plenty of straight-ahead songs that don't veer much from standard verse/chorus structure, and those were fine. But the ones that truly stood out were the songs with a bit of grit, some of which Tweedy rearranged to that effect.
"I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," which was quiet in its original studio incarnation, opened with howling blasts of guitar that exploded into cacophony at the end. "Handshake Drugs" is a song that seems to grow more desperate every time Tweedy plays it. And in a true masterstroke, Wilco served up "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" in a semi-unplugged acoustic version, transposing the original's crushing electric-guitar riff to a gentle jingle-jangle glide.
In contrast to some past Wilco tours, Tweedy seemed to be in good spirits -- and very willing to laugh at himself. At one point, he summoned onstage an audience member who had put Tweedy's face on a homemade T-shirt.
"Wow," Tweedy marveled, "that is hideous. I am one ugly man!"
Nah, he looked fine, and pretty much everything he played was terrific. But special highlights included the Woody Guthrie hoedown "Airline to Heaven"; the always-anthemic "Heavy Metal Drummer"; "Jesus, Etc.," which the band let the crowd sing most of unaccompanied; and Big Star's "Thank You Friends," covered as a tribute to the recently departed Alex Chilton.
It was start-to-finish fine.
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