You can kind of see why some Twin Cities music fans had a “big whoop” reaction to Wilco’s three-night stand at the Palace Theatre.
Wilco, schmilco. The Chicagoans have come to the Twin Cities almost every year since they played their first non-Chicago show at 7th Street Entry in 1994. They already played nearby this year, at the Eaux Claires festival. All that would come from an extra two nights in town, it seems, would be an extended lull in local brewpub sales and a never-ending debate among superfans over which night had the best “Impossible Germany” guitar solo.
Anybody who really knows Wilco, though, knows they know things more bands should know. Like how to avoid playing the same set list every night. Like how important it is to find a quality venue, even if that means adding one more night to sell the same number of tickets. And how to make one city (or two) feel special.
Wilco’s Palace run was special. It turned out to be the band’s final three shows before going on an extended hiatus, and they clearly intended to go out in grand fashion.
At the same time, the sold-out three-night stand was also a defining moment for the Palace. After a bustling eight-month inaugural run of concerts, St. Paul’s reborn downtown rock hub landed a booking that truly felt like an event — the first occasion there that music fans will be talking about for decades.
Performance-wise, Wilco started off with a relatively standard-of-late set on Wednesday, mixed it up more Thursday and then really got loose and playful Friday, picking out many songs that had sat on the sidelines for years.
If you had gone to just one show, Wednesday’s was the best option, with its anthology-like overview of live staples from 1995’s “Box Full of Letters” to 2015’s “Random Name Generator,” with “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” and “The Late Greats” in between. But there was a thoughtful pacing and emotional arc to the marathon that made it seem to get better and better each night. Even the “Impossible Germany” solo sounded best on Friday night (nerd alert: debate away).
At first, frontman Jeff Tweedy tried to sound flip about his band’s going-away parties. “We missed you, too,” he quipped early Thursday, just 22 hours after the first goodbye. “We couldn’t sleep last night thinking about you.”
Even before Night 2’s end, though, the 50-year-old singer/songwriter — looking especially hermit-like with short, Willie-worthy ponytails that probably won’t last a week into his homecoming — couldn’t muster any more sarcasm, especially after he introduced his five bandmates.
“We’ve been busy for a long time, and now these are going to be our last shows for a while,” he told the crowd. “It’s really nice to be able to share them with you.”
On Friday, he took time to thank every one of the crew members: “There’s no toxic masculinity in this entire operation, and I’m so grateful for that,” he said. “And they get the best cocaine.”
OK, the snark didn’t entirely go away. Tweedy did get very sentimental in the waning minutes before ”I Must Be High,” noting it as the first song ever recorded under the Wilco brand name, following the abrupt breakup of his and bassist John Stirratt’s earlier group, Uncle Tupelo, in 1994.
“John and I just decided, ‘Let’s keep making records together,’ ” Tweedy recounted.
The three-night run highlighted just how wonderfully weird and unpredictable Wilco has become over 23 years and 12 studio albums.
The rowdy, brawny barroom rock of ’90s songs “Casino Queen” and “Monday” bumped up against the artier, krautrocky meanderings of “Art of Almost” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” and nobody in the crowd blinked or held out a thumbs-down befitting a Spinal Tap jazz odyssey. Likewise, hushed and folky acoustic ditties like “Forget the Flowers” and “Cry All Day” gave way to bubbly pop showpieces “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Hummingbird,” and fans sang along with equal delight.
Few, if any, rock bands get away with that much transitioning in one gig. Over three gigs, that sonic unpredictability became routine in a thrilling way, like watching Venus Williams nail the corners at every match.
As the band bounced around sonically, the Palace stayed rock-solid. The only hiccup acoustically speaking was audience chatter from the back of the floor spilling back onto the stage, promoting a little chiding from Tweedy on Thursday. Fans also overcrowded the back of the floor, not realizing there was plenty of breathing room down front.
By the time Wilco returns, though — likely a year or more away — we’ll be more used to the Palace. And we’ll probably never be ho-hum about the band again.
The excellent live stream of Thursday's Palace concert has been preserved at 89.3 the Current's website.