Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy gave fans a scare Saturday night at the recently refurbished Fox Theater in Pomona when he declared, 12 songs into the band's set, that the Chicago-based act was "approaching the end of an era" and promised more details later.
Those aren't words to be taken lightly for Wilco followers. Depending on who's doing the counting, the group has had as many as six eras since releasing its 1995 debut, "A.M." Yet its audience has remained loyal through a host of lineup changes, Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt being the only constants in Wilco's career.
While the comment raised concerns about a future without, say, the participation of local guitar slinger Nels Cline or rhythmic contortionist Glenn Kotche, the truth turned out to be nothing so worrisome. After 45 minutes, Tweedy revealed only that multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone was turning 40.
Welcome to Wilco 2009, where playfulness resides on equal footing with anxiety. The group opened the first of its four sold-out dates in the L.A. area -- the band performs tonight, Tuesday and Thursday at the Wiltern -- with a theme song, the drolly titled "Wilco (The Song)" from the band's seventh studio album of original material, "Wilco (The Album)," due for release June 30.
"Is someone twisting a knife in your back," sang Tweedy in the show opener, a midtempo feel-good romp that offers the band as consoling device ("Wilco will love you, baby"). It's a long way from the head-pounding skepticism toward rock 'n' roll in "Misunderstood" from Wilco's 1996 album, "Being There," but a more comfortable Wilco isn't a less daring one.
New songs such as "One Wing" and "Deeper Down" allowed Sansone and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen to turn the band into a mini-orchestra, and "Bull Black Nova" was downright chilling, perhaps the nastiest, most aggressive tune in the Wilco songbook. Cline's stalking guitar played a devilish cat-and-mouse with Jorgensen's tension-fraught keys until the two became indiscernible.
For all the song's nightmare visions of blood-soaked vintage cars, the tune, like many in the Wilco canon, ultimately comes down to the inability to connect. It's an unanswered phone that sends Tweedy's rasp into a falsetto, and the band into a surge of panic.
There was no mention of recently deceased former bandmate Jay Bennett, who served an integral role in Wilco until being asked to leave in 2001. Any tribute would have been forced, as relations between Tweedy and Bennett had remained frayed in the years since his departure, but a reworking of "Can't Stand It," which Bennett co-wrote, proved an honorable act of respect. The band brought new force to the song with a more pronounced gospel coda.
Maintaining the celebratory atmosphere, the band presented Sansone with a cake to commemorate his new era.
After a brief pause, Tweedy joked, "Back to work," and the group launched into the extended trance-rock anthem "Spiders (Kidsmoke)."
Returning to business as usual, it was clear that Wilco is the rarest of bands -- one that's turned adventurousness into a routine.