Jeff Tweedy, center, leads Wilco at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
As the waning moon shone down on the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night, two songs about California from the Chicago band Wilco and singer/composer/harpist Joanna Newsom felt handcrafted for the moment.
The first was by opener Newsom, who over eight years has carved a singular path through the world of popular music with her graceful, wildly beatific internal narratives.
With a voice that conjured Joni Mitchell but not intentionally so, Newsom lifted her sound to the heavens on a whim during “In California.” A song about the California of her heart, she described a darkened internal realm where night comes “so fast it feels like some kind of mistake” and “walleyed deer, quiet as gondoliers” move across the land.
Wilco’s song came during its first encore. It was less precious, a singalong called “California Stars” that featured lyrics written by Woody Guthrie. Referencing a lusty heart and the cosmos above, Wilco's founder Jeff Tweedy sang of stars that “hang like grapes/on vines that shine/and warm the lovers’ glass/like friendly wine.” The band, which has been touring for much of 2012 in support of their album “The Whole Love,” presented Guthrie's words faithfully, minus the meandering trails it has discovered in many of its songs.
Combined, Newsom and Wilco offered moments of beauty that seemed to transcend critique. So filled with honest energy was their music that nitpicking objections would be like knocking the lack of innovation in a pine cone -- the beauty within the music lay in its very presence, and the ways in which the patterns felt divinely designed.
Newsom’s set, in fact, seemed destined to be performed under the stars on the Bowl’s stage, a surprising turn considering her most high-profile Los Angeles performance to date was as headliner at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2007, where the venue’s fanciness -- and a 28-piece orchestra -- gilded her music in shimmering riches.
At the Bowl, playing as a trio with collaborators Ryan Francesconi and Neal Morgan, Newsom’s set felt more rustic. Pared down, Newsom offered mostly acoustic-based music that suggested an elegant weaving of British and American folk, early European classical music, and baroque pop. Moving to a grand piano, Newsom banged out the bawdy "Inflammatory Writ,” from her 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” She closed with “Cosmia,” from her 2006 collaboration with composer Van Dyke Parks.
Wilco’s set was far more rocking, if equally intricate. Now pushing 20 years as an entity, the band that Tweedy has built is an amazing machine whose six players seem more at one with their music than any rock group working today. At times, especially during the massive triple-guitar workout that climaxes “Impossible Germany,” it was unclear whether the band was playing the song or the song was playing the band.
Those meandering paths within Wilco’s songs played a central role in the Bowl performance, guiding old songs such as “Boxful of Letters,” “Misunderstood” and “Shot in the Arm” into new territories while remaining true to their spirit. The thrilling mid-set combination of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Art of Almost” offered evidence of the band’s progressiveness, and poppier songs like “Handshake Drugs” and “Always in Love” turned beefy with massive guitar runs and dueling keyboard hums. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" started softer than on record, which only made its climax heavier.
Earlier in the evening, Tweedy had suggested the Bowl performance resembled a “Singalong 'Sound of Music,'” which he called a “singalong to the sound of Wilco.” His band’s fans are indeed devoted, know all the words to all the songs and have no problem screaming along to them. Combined, these singular voices levitated the stage, conjuring an overflowing spirit that filled the Hollywood Bowl.
Live review: Wilco at the Palladium
Wilco's riveting 'Art of Almost,' an oral history
Drum lesson: Wilco's Glenn Kotche on found sound
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit
PHOTOS AND MORE:
PHOTOS: Iconic rock guitars and their owners
PHOTOS: The Rolling Stones at 50
PHOTOS: Unfortunately timed pop meltdowns