The Chicago band Wilco has endured plenty of adjectives and names in its nearly 20-year existence from those who want to pigeonhole them. Alternative country. Prog-rock. Folk experimentalists. Alt-everything.
But Monday night at a sold-out Red Butte Garden, the band wanted to be jam band.
Songs that on record were four minutes long stretched to eight minutes or more as frontman Jeff Tweedy and lead guitarist Nels Cline extended tunes far beyond what was necessary. While it is always admirable to see how a band interprets its catalog, seemingly endless noodling on the guitar near the end of songs rarely elicits more interest.
However, that is not to say seeing Wilco was a disappointment. While the past three albums since "A Ghost is Born" have seemed complacent and water-treading, there are enough well-crafted, sing-along gems from the recent albums that match up well to the highlights of the band's earlier, best albums, such as "A.M.," "Being There" and "Summerteeth."
So, for every time a few songs from the band's 2011 album, "The Whole Love," killed any sense of momentum, there was a quicker, more energized song from the band's earlier days that reminded us why Wilco is one of the most interesting live bands in the country.
Those who loved the band from the earlier days could take much pleasure from songs such as "Misunderstood," "Far, Far Away," "I'm Always in Love," "Box Full of Letters," and "Shot in the Arm" that, well, gave a shot in the arm to the proceedings. Tellingly, none of those songs was given extended, navel-gazingly treatments, and it was appreciated.
Other highlights included songs from the band's "Mermaid Avenue" sessions, a collaboration with Billy Bragg to provide music to Woody Guthrie lyrics. Tweedy mentioned Guthrie's upcoming 100th birthday, and then played the charming "Hesitating Beauty" and wistful "California Stars."
Tweedy, clad in a dark plaid coat and tan fedora, seemed appreciative of the throngs of fans near the stage but mildly displeased by a crowd that seemed, in his words, "restless." He called out the front VIP section, saying that they apparently had worked hard that day, feeling the need to sit down. Later, he stopped the show to needle a security guard for being too aggressive.
As is always the case with Red Butte Garden, the venue becomes more alive as the sun sets, as the sponsors vacate the lawn and the alcohol kicks in. Over the years, bands have made visuals an important part of their Red Butte show, and Wilco created an often mesmerizing medley of primary colors that were projected onto white rags that drooped from the rafters.
The two-hour show illustrated that in the case of Wilco, they can be whatever they want but they shouldn't do too much of that whatever. I love them for the songs, but not the jamming.
R With • Blitzen Trapper
When • Monday
Where • Red Butte Garden, Salt Lake City.
Bottom Line • Despite too much jamming, Wilco delivers satisfying set of oldies-but-goodies.