A Shot in the Arm

Wilco

Rushing into Stubb’s early Sunday evening to find Alan Sparhawk already writhing through “Destroyer” on his antique, Mahogany-hued Les Paul had the appearance of arriving at your own exorcism late. Duluth, Minnesota’s Retribution Gospel Choir has already born one of 2008’s devilishly best platters in its eponymous spring debut, so catching Wilco’s opener was paramount. Low-fi pioneer and professional six-string stranglehold specialist, Sparhawk tore into his very own My Aim is True-era Elvis Costello epithet, “Kids,” followed shortly by True Believers evocation “Easy Prey.” 100-pounds thin in a snug black shirt, with shoulder-length blond curls, the guitarist looked for all the world like Angus Young as he beat his instrument into plowshares. Hüsker Dü never went so missed.

Jeff Tweedy, on the other hand, never wore such a dour, joyless expression as he stepped onstage at the stroke of 8:15pm. As Wilco’s lovably hangdog air traffic controller steadily scales Dylanesque heights of musical worship, the mantle continues to bow his shoulders even when cloaked in a green pinstriped sports jacket. Fortunately, he’s been saved by rock & roll, literally – by his own sung admission – so once he launched into opener “Sunken Treasure,” his clenched face loosened and finally broke into a sheepish grin just prior to “Handshake Drugs,” which tore the first of two sold-out shows a new blowhole. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he offered, “you guys rule. It’s the best day of the year – just look at this.” Austin never weathered such perfect May temperatures Sunday night, so Tweedy and company obliged with 26 songs in 135 minutes that even engaged the high school girl in front of me, texting her boyfriend, “I’m at some concert with my mom.”

Monday, the Retribution Gospel trio bucked out of the gate on the Crazy Horse hitch of “They Knew You Well,” shrugging workout “Take Your Time,” and the deep Bo Diddley rumble of “Somebody’s Someone.” By the time “Destroyer” once again took center stage, however, Sparhawk’s slow burn wasn’t arriving at full ignition as it had the night before, so he got out of the way fast, and good thing too. Wilco’s second night outdoors on Red River transformed the first into mere soundcheck.

Whereas the previous “concert” rollicked with four A.M. syndications including the raucous “Casino Queen,” plus 45 minutes of encore highlighted by Mermaid Avenue choogler “Hoodoo Voodoo,” last night kicked-off on Summerteeth’s poker-faced snarl “Via Chicago” and rocketed straight to the stars. The hits were the same – “Hummingbird,” “A Shot in the Arm,” “Jesus, Etc.,” “Impossible Germany,” and krautrocking closers “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” – but the connective tissue stretched considerably more tawny, and, as with early, second-night scene setter “Ashes of American Flags,” subtle. A.M.’s “Box Full of Letters,” unopened Sunday as was its debut album-mate “Passenger Side,” played out similar to Wilco’s initial local sets at Liberty Lunch and Antone’s in the mid-1990s: joyous. Six studio LPs since ’95, not to mention a pair of Woody Guthrie polish-offs, have produced an American songbook bursting with contemporary standards judging from the lyrical recall of two rabid Stubb’s audiences. “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again),” “California Stars,” and concluding Being There trifecta, “Kingpin,” “I Got You (at the End of the Century),” and “Monday,” rang Uncle Sam's Liberty Bell.

A hometown stand in Lollapalooza’s Windy City back in February found Wilco playing every song in its beloved catalog, and such an exercise has not only loosened the group’s live mixes, it’s obviously renewed Tweedy’s musical faith in the face of heavyweight pop idolatry. Having guitarist Nels Cline showing him with fireworks night after night, and drummer Glenn Kotche drenched in crash-bam-boom every performance by the third number doesn’t hurt. Looser, more droll – downright happier – Tweedy took Monday by storm, and over two nights in A-town, proved rock & roll well worth saving.

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