With a career spanning three decades and 15 LPs, Chicago-based band Wilco has consistently proven to be one of alternative rock’s brightest spots. The tour for its 2019 studio album, Ode to Joy, was postponed for more than a year, and Wilco’s 2021 tour marks the group’s first return to live performance since the onset of the pandemic. With a well over two-hour long setlist, the band was certainly poised to make this return a memorable one Oct. 17. Standing on the IPA-soaked floor of Oakland’s Fox Theater, Wilco’s pummeling alt rock oeuvre reverberated in a tidal wave of post-pandemic jubilation.
Indie folk singer Faye Webster opened the evening, commanding the stage with unparalleled verve. Webster, swathed in moody blue light, played an eight-song set last Monday evening, lending The Fox a bit of sanguinity. Webster’s vocals possess a certain twine, dynamically bending between registers. “Haven’t written a song in a minute / Haven’t been in love in forever” she lilted during the song “Kind Of,” off her 2021 LP I Know I’m Funny haha. Simultaneously wearily pensive and beachily buoyant, the record is comfortingly banal, with Webster winsomely recounting her spats with landlords, loneliness and lovers. “This song goes out to all the sh—y landlords out there,” she declared before playing the record’s title track, accented by a mellow, melancholic baseline.
Webster’s subdued guitars and honey-sweet vocals faded into the evening as Wilco began their set. Fronted by the inimitable Jeff Tweedy, Wilco has a definitive “dad rock” vibe to it, a characteristic reflected by the crowd that turned out Monday night. Spirits soared when the group took the stage with “Bright Leaves,” an admittedly tonally somber opener to both Ode to Joy and the concert. The group quickly followed with the apt “A Shot in the Arm,” offering a moment of levity and pandemic-fueled humor amid a more sepulchral record and persistent COVID-19 anxiety.
“Random Number Generator” served as a high point of the first half of the set, possessing one of the band’s more identifiable and almost invigorating bass lines. Musically, Wilco is at its best and most sleek performing live, the instrumentation often converging in an earthquake caliber eruption of energy. This energy doesn’t falter, but rather sustains and feeds off of itself.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “Impossible Germany” from the record Sky Blue Sky, an undulating, twirly assemblage of guitar solos. Of course, Monday’s set was not without its fair share of certifiable Wilco staples, including “Jesus, etc.” and the enduringly folksy Woodie Guthrie tune “California Stars.” Other high points included “Hummingbird,” bouncy and imbued with a masterful subtlety that manifests itself in the song’s whimsical lyricism: “A cheap sunset on a television set can upset her / But he never could,” sung Tweedy in the first verse, before launching into a chorus tainted by memory, “Standing still in your past / Floating fast like a hummingbird.”
Wilco closed out its exuberant set with “I’m a Wheel,” a track that truly feels momentous even amid a discography continually punctuated by climactic moments. This sense of momentousness is consistent with the direction the band seems to be headed in, especially during an era where the personal and political are increasingly full of strife. Describing the record, Tweedy says it consists of “really big, big folk songs, these monolithic, brutal structures that these delicate feelings are hung on.” The sense of scale Tweedy speaks of here was undeniably evident during the band’s live performance — an experience comparable to witnessing a great feat of nature. In the wake of COVID-19, it’s possible this comparison isn’t far off.
Ode to Joy’s title is deceptively straightforward — an expression of Wilco’s desire to subsume all of the darkness found in today’s political climate and render something joyous from it. Surrounded by folks of all ages rollicking in Wilco’s bombastic set, it becomes clear that this joy is not just an abstraction, but something palpable and perhaps revolutionary.