Legendary British rocker Nick Lowe opened. The room sold out, there was a batch of deluxe new songs, and at times Overture Hall was the loudest it will ever get. Still, Wilco commander-in-chief Jeff Tweedy wondered aloud Wednesday night, halfway through the band's 24-song program, if the audience had their heads in his game.
"Is your attention all the way here, or is it distracted by the Brew Crew?" he asked with a smile. He got a rowdy chant of "Go Crew Go!" in return. "I need to make a note to never do that again," he laughed.
He then continued to do to the house what the Arizona Diamondbacks were doing to the Brewers. Hitting grand slams.
His teasing was preceded by a halcyon version of "Impossible Germany." The textures of the tune were enriched by dramatic yet simple stage dressing and lighting, which combined to create a tactile version of the music's haunted happiness. Hundreds of little hanging ghosts were draped over the sextet, baby spooks bathed in shadows and light, at times coming to life with tiny flashes of their own. Tim Burton meets Maurice Sendak.
Some of Wilco's new music is not for children, though. Last night's nearly eight-minute rendering of "Art of Almost" is an example. It's a one-chord wonder, as appetizing as it is abstract. The drum beat that started it was like getting jumped in an alley. Crooked, demented, dangerous. Fun.
The new songs were a perfect canvas on which to paint well worn numbers. "Art of Almost" was followed by a beautiful, deranged "I'm Trying to Break Your Heart." That was followed by the new "I Might," which featured lead guitarist Nels Cline on a searing slide.
Next in the sequence came the down-tempo, finger picked acoustic "Black Moon," sung almost completely in darkness. Cline on pedal steel smoothed out the wrinkles of worry in Tweedy's lyrical despondence. This one is as close as Tweedy has ever come to an unapologetic throw-back to Uncle Tupelo.
Dressed in brown, looking like a Russian circus bear in a homburg hat, Tweedy continued the sports-metaphor teasing all night. "We're totally not looking past this show," he joked. "We're playing just one show at a time. We're here to kick your ass." And then he did, albeit it kindly, with a church hymn version, sung with the congregation, of "Jesus, Etc."
But church was not out.
Cline caressed a double neck electric guitar during the Partridge Family get-happy of "Dawned on Me." "A Shot in the Arm" created a dense mood. "Message from Mid-Bar," a bonus track on the new CD package of The Whole Love, mesmerized.
It was the last night of a short but intense stretch of shows that started last week with a gig in Atlanta, then two nights at the Ryman in Nashville, a stop in Tweedy's native St. Louis, then Madison.
"We're home," said Tweedy, before he read from a Madison Common Council proclamation honoring the band on their last stop here. It included a quote from an Isthmus reviewer who called the band "America's shiniest rock object." They were then and they are now.