Review: Wilco returns to New Orleans for the Orpheum's reopening

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Wilco performed at the Orpheum Theater on Sept. 28. - ANTI-
  • ANTI-
  • Wilco performed at the Orpheum Theater on Sept. 28.

Jeff Tweedy — decked in a denim shirt, big brown glasses and a stout white Stetson — greeted the audience at the Orpheum Theater on Sept. 28 for the first time after Wilco had already played nearly an entire album.

"So glad this place is opened... Incredible," he said. "After all these years it's good to be anywhere. Especially here."

Tweedy acknowledged that yes, that's a pretty good line, and it's likely he's used it before, but that kind of sure-footed, years- and road-tested cheek comes with Wilco's precision as a live band, able to play its entire new album, followed by a sort of greatest hits middle set, and an acoustic campfire singalong encore for a set totaling 31 songs spanning the band's 20-year career including nearly all of its breakthrough 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

The threat of lightning and rain cut short Wilco's appearance at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — the band wiggled out a few familiar hits before promising it'd be back soon. The band later was announced to be the first rock band to kick off the Orpheum's fall concert calendar as the historic theater reopened after extensive renovations.

You often hear about the first band to play a venue. (The Grateful Dead famously performed the first show at The Warehouse in New Orleans — but The Flock and Fleetwood Mac opened.) And so William Tyler (who opened for Yo La Tengo at Tipitina's in 2011) performed the opening set, the first "show," to kick off the Orpheum's fall rock concert calendar. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Orpheum as its home base, performed the theater's "real" christening earlier this month, but Tyler broke it in.

"It's my understanding this theater just reopened, right?" Tyler said. "The paint still smells pretty new."

Leftover fumes of paint and varnish disappeared once the room filled. With a few lights aimed squarely at him as he sat at a stool and picked an acoustic guitar, the Nashville instrumentalist's bluegrass-inflected folk finger picking broke open into wide-angle atmosphere, cleansing the room before Wilco's transformation of it.

The Orpheum's small-scale elegance — all light gold touches and bright blue hues — served as an irreverent playground for Wilco's eccentric rock 'n' roll. The band entered to the discordant strains of Star Wars opener "EKG" before launching into "More" as playful multicolored waves of beaded light gave Wilco a gently arena-rock backdrop. A two-note bass riff propelled the three-guitar chaos and Tweedy's Suicide-like croon of "You Satellite," featuring a rain backdrop that melted into psychedelic stars. The light show also played into "Kamera" with glittery rainbows and on synchronized drum solos and Nels Cline's impressive shredding on guitar three-ways on "Where Do I Begin" and "Impossible Germany." The band purred "Handshake Drugs" with the familiar low grumble of the Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now."

Each member operated the control board of his own chaos — Mikael Jorgensen at a central command of keyboards, Cline and Pat Sansone wielding wild demons, bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche steering a monster of a rhythm section, with Tweedy the unassuming captain.

Tweedy was short on words, giving more time to maestro duties for the two-and-a-half-hour set list. He hammed up the microphone stand, turning it to the audience for crowd favorites "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "Hummingbird," after which he doffed then donned his hat in time with its final drum roll. Tweedy also dedicated "Heavy Metal Drummer" to his father for his birthday, though he doesn't like the song — "Tell him I said something about him."

After "Late Greats," the band left the stage bathed in a violet fog, then crept back to its instruments for the repetitive lurching and erratic shredding of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" before its massive four-chord chorus, then left again, returning one final time with a stripped-down assembly of acoustic instruments, including Jorgensen on a melodica.

Stirratt shined on lead vocals for "It's Just That Simple" after holding down impressive harmonies throughout. Tweedy led the crowd for one final singalong through "A Shot in the Arm."

Here's the setlist:

"EKG"
"More..."
"Random Name Generator"
"The Joke Explained"
"You Satellite"
"Taste The Ceiling"
"Pickled Ginger"
"Where Do I Begin"
"Cold Slope"
"King of You"
"Magnetized"
"Handshake Drugs"
"Kamera"
"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"
"Art of Almost"
"Via Chicago"
"Hummingbird"
"Box Full of Letters"
"Heavy Metal Drummer"
"I'm the Man Who Loves You"
"Jesus Etc."
"Born Alone"
"Impossible Germany"
"Airline to Heaven" with William Tyler
"Late Greats"
"Spiders (Kidsmoke)" 
"Misunderstood"
"It's Just That Simple"
"War On War"
"We've Been Had"
"California Stars"
"A Shot in the Arm"


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