To understand where Wilco stands, heading into another three-night run this weekend at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul, you have to start with what happened after Minnesota’s favorite Chicago band played three shows there exactly two years ago.
In short, pretty close to nothing happened.
“It was new territory for us,” bassist John Stirratt said of the year-plus hiatus that followed those concerts.
“A lot of bands do it, taking that kind of time off. But for us, this has always been a fairly continuous gig. So it was kind of a big moment.”
That 2017 Palace trifecta — their last tour dates before the long break — was a big enough deal for frontman Jeff Tweedy and his crew that they’re repeating it this weekend, with two instantly sold-out performances Friday and Saturday and a bonus gig Sunday.
Once again, these are the last Wilco road shows of the year, not counting hometown gigs next month. This time, though, the group will be focused on a well received but rather peculiar new record that was shaped in part by the hiatus.
Not so coyly titled “Ode to Joy,” the album is far and away the mellowest entry in Wilco’s 11-LP discography — “essentially an off-kilter folk record,” is how Stirratt put it in a phone interview from home three weeks ago during a short break in the band’s busy fall tour schedule.
The lone member besides Tweedy who dates back to Wilco’s twangy 1995 debut, “A.M.” — the current six-man roster has been cemented for 15 fruitful years now, though — Stirratt candidly explained that the new record’s stripped-down sound is partially due to the fact that the band members had a hard time getting back together once they splintered off to do their own thing.
“Trying to get everyone’s schedule on the same page was hard,” he said. “We finally settled on everybody recording in Chicago in January, which is a pretty safe time in Chicago to not have much else to do.”
The bassist spent part of his time off playing acoustic dates with Ray LaMontagne as the “Trouble” singer’s lone accompanist and harmony partner: “I had nowhere to hide in those, unlike Wilco shows,” he quipped. “But it went great.”
With the rest of the sextet still scattered, Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche began preproduction on the Wilco record before the whole group reconvened. That went so well, Stirratt explained, that “in a lot of cases, the songs didn’t need a whole lot else from the rest of us.”
“Jeff has really been in an impressive mode the last few years of working almost daily. He always has a healthy batch of songs to work on in different forms of completion, and these songs were generally more completed than in the past.”
‘Bigger in a good way’
Thus, many of the “Ode to Joy” tracks are built on little more than Tweedy’s often hushed voice and soft guitar parts contrasted by Kotche’s crisp-sounding, sometimes heavy drum parts. That uneasy-sounding balance was evidenced by the single issued over the summer, “Love Is Everywhere (Beware),” a song that also exemplifies the chasm-like themes of joy and dread referenced in the album’s title and some of its lyrics.
Stirratt described the thematic idea as “there being so much in the world right now to be upset about, but still being able to find joy in our own subjective ways.”
“It was an interesting conceptual approach [Jeff and Glenn] had going in, and the rest of us got to know it as we were making it,” he continued. “It was really monolithic and primal at the same time, and lyrically there was a lot of beautiful identity and nice continuity already there. It was clear there was kind of a thread and cohesiveness.”
Now that the band has been playing the new songs live for a few months, the rest of the members are putting more of the group imprint on them, Stirratt said.
“Wilco songs always get a little bigger live — in a good way, I think — and that’s true with these songs,” he said, listing off the most notable updates: “ ‘We Were Lucky’ is a lot more visceral and jarring than on the record. And ‘Bright Leaves’ is fleshed out a little more now, in a way that really fills the rooms better.”
Ironically, though, one of the album’s most experimental and exciting tracks, “Quiet Amplifier” — an oddly paced, muted epic that some reviews have pinned as a sort of centerpiece for the record — had yet to make the set lists on this tour at the time of our interview. Stirratt laughed when asked why.
“It has a really odd shape, and has this really weird linear build, which we’ve kind of touched on before but not quite this way,” he said. “It sounds great when we’ve rehearsed it, so I don’t really know why we haven’t done it yet, but we plan to. We didn’t forget about it!”
Of course, the Palace might be the perfect place to give it a try. The band has three sets to fill without repeating themselves too much, as they did in 2017.
“I’m sure we’ll lean on the new record pretty heavily, but vary it beyond that,” he said. “Especially for familiar towns like Minneapolis or Chicago, we’ll really try to mix it up as much as we can. So during the day there, we’ll probably work on deep cuts to play that night.”
As for why Twin Cities fans were lucky enough to get another three-night stand, he believes it had more to do with this being one of Wilco’s best markets than with the venue itself. That “family kind of vibe” goes back to the band’s 7th St. Entry gig in November 1994, its first show outside of St. Louis (then the band's base).
“The Twin Cities is one of the places we can and want to do this, since we’ve always had a great audience there,” Stirratt said.
“I always liked the Orpheum, too, but the Palace feels a little more rock and a little less formal — a little more apropos for a three-night stand. And St. Paul itself has gotten kind of cool and feels like it’s emerging, a little more fun now but also still a bit quieter over there.”
That latter statement might also wind up describing the shows this time around: fun but quieter.