Last month, the Chicago folk-rock veterans of Wilco celebrated their 20th anniversary as a band. Again. Yes, although many fans will recall the band’s 2014 Milwaukee stop on its 20th anniversary tour, plenty don’t recall the group’s tempestuous first decade of existence, before hiring lead guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone in 2004 to round out the current roster.

Although Jeff Tweedy, together with former bandmate Jay Bennett (RIP), had already written most of Wilco’s most-beloved songs by that time, the band’s reputation as a perennial cross-country live act was just beginning to develop; versatile enough to fit comfortably on almost any bill, Wilco benefited from the exploding festival scene, playing the likes of Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Lollapalooza back when those events all had distinct identities. They have also continued to release quality albums, but for the most part, those albums have come and gone without making much of an impact on the world.

The group’s next release, an EP called Hot Sun Cool Shroud, is slated for release June 28, but Wilco didn’t play anything new at their tour kickoff show Wednesday night at The Riverside Theater, instead continuing to feature last year’s Cousin as well as material from 2022’s lengthy Cruel Country, alongside the usual hits. It’s a comfy formula for a band that has maintained a high standard both live and in the studio for most of its time together.

“Infinite Surprise” is an effective opener on Cousin and it worked equally well to begin Wednesday’s show, a rather tense about-face from the mellow country vibe of the previous album and an immediate opportunity for Cline to get a little noisy. An extended feedback drone out of “Handshake Drugs” continued even after the crowd had finished applauding the song, leading into a rendition of “Pittsburgh” much fuller and more lush than the studio version. They also played the song “Cousin” early in the set, a jittery stomper that harkens back somewhat to Wilco’s early-2000s peak era.

Wilco’s first decade featured plenty of raucous southern-rock jams, but it wasn’t until the current lineup solidified that the group developed its own identity as a quasi-improvisational band. One typical method, as in songs like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” or “Via Chicago,” is simply ambushing a pretty tune with a barrage of chaotic bashing. Then there’s always the extended guitar solo strategy, employed at each and every show during “Impossible Germany.” But Tweedy tends to write a new open-ended showcase every few years, and the current favorite is Cruel Country‘s “Bird Without A Tail/Base Of My Skull,” which stretched to nearly 10 minutes via a gradual full-band swell.

It followed some sort of fracas in the crowd near the stage that was evidently resolved quickly by venue security. [Editor’s note: We’ve been told that a woman in the crowd fainted.] “When I was playing in bars and a fight would break out, you were told never to stop playing,” said Tweedy after wrapping up the song, “because the fight would just get worse if there wasn’t something to dance to.” True to his word, Tweedy kept things relatively upbeat for the remainder of the show, playing “Evicted” followed by a string of expected nuggets. The lack of variety here does tend to make ends of Wilco concerts a little more tedious than they need to be, although as Tweedy pointed out, singing is good for you. While there were zero surprises in the setlist, “Impossible Germany” was a particular thrill. Yes, the song gets played to death. Yes, it’s just a mopey classic rock song with a long guitar solo. Some might even argue that on some nights, that guitar solo blurs together with hundreds of others across the decades.

On Wednesday, Nels Cline went on a one-note rampage as if deliberately channeling Neil Young for the bulk of the solo. If is to be believed, this would’ve been approximately Cline’s 890th take on this particular job requirement. Somehow he still finds ways to take a listener on a fresh journey night after night. This one obliterated the rest of the world for those few minutes.

The encore concluded with a massive “Spiders,” including Tweedy goading the audience into a Beavis and Butt-Head-style riff singalong. It’s a rock-star move that smacked of desperation when he started doing it a few years back, yet now that it’s not necessarily an every-night thing, maybe everyone can just laugh and goof along. The days of Wilco taking themselves too seriously are clearly over, but they are one of the few ostensible legacy acts going for over three decades whose new material fits seamlessly into the live show—and doesn’t produce groans from the audience.

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About The Author

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Cal Roach is a writer (here, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and radio DJ (WMSE 91.7 FM) who has lived in Riverwest for most of the past two decades.