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New Wilco takes risks that pay off

Re-energized band is unafraid to go exploring -- whether or not the audience is ready to go.

August 31, 2007|John Payne | Special to The Times

The transformation of Jeff Tweedy's Wilco from an ostensibly roots-country-folk band to an edgy, noisy chamber-rock ensemble -- and back again, as heard on the recent "Sky Blue Sky" album -- has been a fascinating thing to observe.

As played out for an adoring capacity crowd Wednesday at the Greek Theatre, Wilco's remake/remodeling, which comes after a turbulent few years of label changes, group squabbling, addiction and depression, finds the members recharged and remarkably nuanced musically, and with their more plain-spoken earlier material given added gravitas by Tweedy's now better-humored persona and the boldly venturesome shapes his band applies to his songs.

Befitting Wilco's past wild ride through the darker side, Tweedy's pervasive themes of solitude and identity crisis dominated the song list, sentiments that were, however, decisively blown to bits throughout this explosively played set. In the opening "You Are My Face" ("Can't tell you who I am"), guitarist Nels Cline hammered and sawed his ax with painterly precision, stippling and bold-stroking Tweedy's words with audacious counter-harmonies that shifted the song to excitingly unfamiliar terrain; Cline's firebombing jazz- and new-music-inflected contributions here and elsewhere grounded and balanced with Tweedy's dangerously maudlin lyrics.

The new Wilco plays a daydreamy blues for people who've been to the other side and have emerged with a more measured response to their passions. In "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," the easy loping "Feed the Man" or "Shake It Off," interludes of off-kilter rhythm guitar and keyboard or sudden bursts of impossibly lovely solo guitar both mesmerized and brought a tear to the eyes.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Wilco song: A review in Friday's Calendar section of Wilco's concert at the Greek Theatre misidentified the song "Impossible Germany" as "Feed the Man."

While Tweedy and his five-piece ensemble showed they can bring it home in straightforward ways, they were at their most energizing when demonstrating over and again how the pop form can accommodate an infinity of previously unheard shadings.

It was a mark of Wilco's greatness that the band took these risks seemingly unconcerned with whether its audience would willingly come along for the ride.

Ex-Starflyer 59 singer-multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift entertained a handful of early arrivals with an engaging set of ditties culled largely from his recent "Dressed Up for the Letdown" album. In duets with an electric guitarist, he mined a sweetly harmonized '70s-pop vein, the subtle complexity of his songs embracing a deft mixed bag of early blues, ragtime, Bacharach and DeBarge, delivered in an authoritative yet unaffected style on vampy piano, spare drum machine and funkily Vocodered voice.

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