Like Woody Guthrie, Jeff Tweedy can’t help but put it all into words. “Starship Casual,” his pandemic-induced newsletter, sharpened his awareness of Wilco’s impact on its fans. When touring stalled, the newsletter became a vital form of expression for Tweedy, through which talk of musical instruments, life advice, and missives on favorite songs kept him connected with listeners. Today, social engagement like this can broaden the creative roles musicians play in relation to their audiences, but Wilco already was a world for so many to inhabit. It is Tweedy’s decades-long quest to make his mark on the American Songbook that has created the community he keeps. Guthrie wrote that “there is no real trick of creating words to set to music once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song.” Wilco lives that lesson, especially on stage.

At the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York on Friday night (3/31), Wilco played through a career-spanning set that highlighted tracks from their latest LP, Cruel Country, among hits from the band’s repertoire. After opening with the first two songs from that record, Tweedy played a warm and familiar host to the crowd before him. “Good to see everyone,” he said, as if he had just seen them not long before (for some in the crowd, it was certainly the night prior). Afterwards the band broke into a welcome string of early favorites: “Handshake Drugs,” “Say You Miss Me,” and A.M.’s break-up ballad “I Must Be High.”

Nearly two decades with its current and definitive lineup, Wilco plays with easy variations. Nels Cline and Patrick Sansone’s guitar work turned “Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull” into a bracing centerpiece of the set, escalating its jazzy, acoustic riffing with a guitar duel that had Sansone’s lead solos twisting about Cline’s piercing arpeggios. Their jam led into a mellow back-half of the set, but one that realized the band’s more experimental studio productions in the context of its more traditionally arranged songs. “Theologians” melted into the Mellotron-assisted cosmic country of “Ashes of American Flags,” while Summerteeth classic “How to Fight Loneliness” received dreamy electric organ solos, accenting the song’s shadowy cool. Wilco’s setlists tend to be comprehensive accounts of their discography. Hearing the band reinterpret themselves through any given set’s specific sequence puts their best songs into clearer focus.

Wilco ended their set with “A Lifetime to Find,” Tweedy’s take on traditional folk standard “O Death.” While discussing the tradition of death songs, he claimed in writing the song he “wanted a piece” of that history. With their encore, the band proved that it established its place in that history. After a rollicking version of “I’m Always in Love,” they performed their signature version of Guthrie’s famous lyric “California Stars,” which Tweedy introduced with calls for a sing-a-long, teasing those in the audience who would decline to participate. “There’s always a few of you,” he said, “just like me.” That didn’t stop him from smiling through his vocal harmonies with the rest of the band.

Wilco's three-night run concluded on Saturday (4/1). Horsegirl opened all three shows. More pictures from Friday night by Ellen Qbertplaya below...

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