Jeff Tweedy & Co. enlisted the St. Paul arena to show off their showmen side. And the audience was eating it up.
It wouldn't be a big deal with most rock bands, but the fact that Wilco twice enlisted audience participation during its concert Friday night at Roy Wilkins Auditorium spoke volumes about the type of show being offered.
The Wilkins brought out the showy, rowdy, brawny side of Wilco. Or at least the Chicago band used the cavernous, dated St. Paul arena as an excuse to pretend it's more of an FM rock act than it is a favorite of National Public Radio listeners (a side it would go back to showing off the next day on "A Prairie Home Companion").
Not since the blurry heyday of its brilliantly bloated 1996 double-album "Being There" has the group -- four-sixths a different lineup now -- come off as loose, lively and overtly happy to be playing rock 'n' roll as it did during Friday's 2 1/2-hour set. Which is not to say this show outshone the band's more precise and sonically lavish theater shows of the past decade. But if you were going to bring your cousin who only gets out to a few rock shows a year to one Wilco gig, this was it.
Opening with its anthemic promise to make us feel good, "Wilco (the Song)," from the new disc "Wilco (the Album)" -- those cheeky titles could have set the night's tone -- the band right away played its darker material as if to get it out of the way. The frantic and frazzled three-guitar rocker "Bull Black Nova" and the tender opus "One Wing" were early highlights.
By mid-show, the guys seemed to lighten up mentally and loosen up musically, starting with the night's biggest set list surprise, "Just That Simple," a nugget from their 1995 debut sung by bassist John Stirratt. They followed it with the zippy new gem "Sonny Feeling" and a version of "Can't Stand It," funked up by Stevie Wonder-like organ bits.
Then came the participatory bits.
"I'm not saying Iowa City's better than you, but they sang almost this whole song last night," frontman Jeff Tweedy goaded before "Jesus, Etc." His tone suggested that he knew the 4,500 fans were too smart to play along, but why not play along anyway? They did, carrying the song all the way to the last chorus.
Likewise, his tongue was equally in-cheek when he told them -- during an especially wild "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" -- that clapping their hands above their heads was good exercise. That worked, too.
The band got its own hefty workout during the two long encores, the second of which offered nothing but full-gusto rockers, including "Theologians," "Walken" and "Monday." During the first return, the warmly received opener Liam Finn and Tweedy's local Golden Smog accomplice Gary Louris helped raise "California Stars," which was sandwiched between the rousing radio hits "You Never Know" and "Heavy Metal Drummer" -- granted, they're only public-radio hits, but they sure sounded bigger and meaner Friday.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658