Wilco rocked Britt Festivals

I've been telling people that I went to Britt for Jonathan Richman and stayed for Wilco.

I figure the worst way to start a gig review is to talk about the weather. I don't care. If you like snarky, postmodern concert reviews, pick up The Village Voice or Pitchfork and then go languish in your hipster hell.

Way I see it, Tuesday's show was a welcome reward at the end of a long, hot, smoky summer in Southern Oregon.

But, man oh man, was it a lovely evening at Britt. There are things that continue to bug me about Britt, the volume ordinance being the biggie, but the venue is so incredibly beautiful and intimate that I'd be willing to see Justin Bieber massacre Frank Sinatra covers just for the chance to spend a few hours lounging along the grassy hill with a bottle of Lagunitas IPA and my iPod.

Richman got things going with a brief set that features all things Richmantastic. The Boston legend moved to New York in his youth to hang out with The Velvet Underground before creating The Modern Lovers. His solo work is a tonic to the cynicism the reigns over rock 'n' roll these days.

Accompanying Richman was his longtime drummer, Tommy Larkins, who plays the stone-faced straight man to Richman's jovial showman. The duo kept to a small space at the center-right area of the stage, and you'd think they would disappear amid Wilco's bunker of equipment sitting in the dark behind them.

Not so. Richman, who stands well over 6 feet tall, dominated the stage and even jumped into the crowd at some point to bang a cowbell during an extended version of "Dancing in the Lesbian Bar."

My favorite Richman cut that night was his affecting ode to pretentious young men, "Bohemia." Richman's expert strumming — and make no mistake, the guy is an amazing acoustic guitar player — lays the perfect foundation for his crooning vocals.

"Show me the door to Bohemia," he sang, giving voice to every clueless, liberal-arts major freshly arriving in some big city, looking for affirmation of his inherent depth and brilliance.

After a short break, Wilco ambled onstage and dipped into "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," the last track off their its album, "The Whole Love." This is my second time seeing Wilco on this tour, and both shows started with this tune. It is one of my favorite songs off the album, but I'm conflicted about its effectiveness as a show-opener.

The tune rises and falls at various points during its 12-minute running time, at times feeling like it's about to take off, before Jeff Tweedy suddenly pulls the plug and the songs drifts away. Wilco's elaborate light show helps it along, giving the opener a psychedelic feel, even though the song is a bare-bones account of a man's deepening estrangement from his father.

Maybe Wilco was observing Britt's noise rules early in the set because the first five songs were among the more subtle cuts spanning their last two albums.

However, beginning with "Sunken Treasure" off their defining second album, "Being There," we saw the train engine begin to catch fire and push down the tracks.

"Sunken Treasure" is one of the best songs ever written about a dying relationship. Its genius is the lack of histrionics or blame, as Tweedy states calmly, "I am so out of tune ... with you." I don't know about you, but that pretty much encompasses how I feel at the end of a doomed relationship.

From there, Wilco showed that they are, by God, a rock 'n' roll band, as the show's energy level spiked with a chugging version of "Handshake Drugs" and the krautrock-inspired "Born Alone."

A high point for me was back-to-back songs off their first album, "A.M." I've seen a lot of Wilco shows over the past few years and have accepted the fact that Tweedy has moved on from his alt-country roots. But, dammit, I still love those early albums with their twangy, Midwest earnestness.

Tweedy gave the longtime faithful "Pick Up the Change" and "Shouldn't Be Ashamed," two rarely played tracks of "A.M." I was sitting along stage right, on the Nels Cline side, and behind me was a longtime Wilco fan from the Chicago area. When the first chords of "Pick Up the Change" hit us, I turned around and caught the dude's eye. We shared a moment of disbelief.

In an interview with Tempo's editor a few days before the show, Tweedy mentioned that the tour relied heavily on newer stuff from the last two albums. A check of set lists for the shows leading up to Britt backed this up.

Something about Britt must have put Tweedy in a retro mood because the last hour of the show was an exploration of lesser-played songs off "Being There" and "Summerteeth," alums that are closing in on 15 years old.

Oh, and the songs rocked.

The five-song encore featured nothing but "Being There" songs and crowd-pleasers off the album cut with Billy Bragg, "Mermaid Avenue."

When Tweedy said he felt like doing some of the Woody Guthrie covers — "California Stars" and "Hoodoo Voodoo" — from "Mermaid," he was answered with a roar that might have violated Jacksonville's noise law.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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