When Wilco played a three-night marathon at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre to wrap up nearly two years of steady touring in November 2017, it played with a loose and relaxed spirit like a person unwinding on the couch after a long day of work. Which was a warm and wonderful experience for the Chicago band’s nutty Twin Cities fans.
For their first of three nights at the Palace in November 2019 after taking a year and a half off, the experimental Americana rockers sounded way more tightly wound and purposeful, like someone heading into work. Which was maybe even better.
Everything the sextet did in Friday’s 2¼-hour set seemed to have a little extra impact and higher level of drama to it.
The quieter songs such as “Reservations” and several off the band’s new album, “Ode to Joy,” sounded more hollow and still. The freakier and more manic rockers such as “Bull Black Nova” and the best new tune of the night, “We Were Lucky,” sounded extra frayed and fiery. The epic guitar jam “Impossible Germany” seemed more graceful yet roller-coastery.
Arriving mid-show, “Impossible” finally brought third guitarist Pat Sansone out from behind the keyboards, where he spent the largely mellower first hour of the show. That left Nels Cline to add all sorts of subtle guitar fills and moody atmospherics to the more unadorned songs such as show-opener “Bright Leaves” and the other new tunes “One and a Half Stars” and “White Wooden Cross.” Cline’s fine finesse wasn’t enough to keep those latter two from mostly fizzling on stage, though.
As for older fan faves, “Via Chicago” and “Misunderstood” both sounded more desperate and drowned in sound, the latter a perfect pre-encore climax. Conversely, “Box Full of Letters” — the only song off the group’s 1995 debut album, “A.M.” — was a little more playful and nostalgic as frontman Jeff Tweedy noted that this week marked the 25th anniversary of Wilco’s local debut at 7th St. Entry (also the band’s first road show).
Donning a thick black knit cap that proved he knew what to expect in Minnesota in November, Tweedy was actually less chatty and catty between songs; perhaps another indicator he and the band were a little more serious this time around. He did still drop in a few sly and deprecating lines in the second half of the show, though.
“How many of you are coming back for the next nights?” he asked, to a pretty solid wall of applause. “Well, I hope you like this set, ’cuz it’s what we’re playing.”
And just when it seemed like he was owning up to the three-night stand also being special on the band’s end — the concert poster nodding to St. Paul native Charles Schulz on Night 1 certainly added a touch of localized sweetness — Tweedy added a snarky twist.
“If there’s ever a place that feels like home away from home for Wilco, it’s Minneapolis-St. Paul,” he said between the live staples “California Stars” and “The Late Greats” in the encore.
“I’m not saying that to butter you up,” he added. “We don’t really like home.”
He sure does like Low, though. Longtime pals of the Wilco clan — Tweedy even produced their lightly elegant 2013 album “The Invisible Way” — the Duluth trio played a crackling, reverberating, nearly free-form four-song opening set Friday highlighted by a Velvet Underground-blessed version of “Holy Ghost.” (They’ll be back Saturday night, too, while fellow Duluthian Gaelynn Lea warms up Sunday).
Low leaders Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker also stuck around to deliver Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” as a finale with the headliners on Friday, introduced by Tweedy as “one of the greatest bands in the history of rock ’n’ roll.” He was definitely serious about that.
"We'd like to bring out our friends; one of the greatest bands in the history of American rock n' roll."— C. Riemenschneider (@ChrisRstrib) November 23, 2019
-@Wilco + @lowtheband ending with the greatest in Canadian rock n' roll pic.twitter.com/FPc7j8wXhg
Here's Wilco's set list from Night 1:
1. Bright Leaves
2. Before Us
3. Company in My Back
4. War on War
5. Handshake Drugs
6. Side With the Seeds
7. One and a Half Stars
8. The Joke Explained
10. White Wooden Cross
11. Via Chicago
12. Bull Black Nova
13. Random Name Generator
15. Impossible Germany
16. Jesus, Etc.
17. We Were Lucky
18. Love Is Everywhere (Beware)
19. Forget the Flowers
20. Box Full of Letters
21. Everyone Hides
22. I'm Always in Love
24. I'm the Man Who Loves You
25. Hold Me Anyway
27. ENCORE: California Stars
28. The Late Greats
29. Cinnamon Girl