Wilco at XPoNential Music Fest — a rock-and-roll machine on fire

Wilco headlined the second night of the XPoNential Music Festival. For most of the last decade, they've been more or less permanently on tour, and are now a well-oiled rock 'n' roll machine.
Wilco headlined the second night of the XPoNential Music Festival. For most of the last decade, they've been more or less permanently on tour, and are now a well-oiled rock 'n' roll machine.
Posted: July 23, 2012

It has often been said that Wilco is the American Radiohead — an edgy, 21st-century rock band whose audience only seems to grow the more they challenge it. Less remarked on is the more obvious fact that they are also the new Grateful Dead — populist guarantors of the heartland verities of cosmic Americana. So it makes perfect sense that Wilco should headline the second night of the XPoNential Music Festival, curated by WXPN, a radio station that has astutely bridged the divide between edgy and crunchy and, like Wilco and Radiohead, commands a mass audience that is more a community than a crowd.

On Saturday night at the Susquehanna Bank Center, a big chunk of that audience was on hand — upward of 20,000, by my reckoning — and Wilco rose to the occasion. In short, they were on fire. When you factor in rowdy, celebratory opening sets from the Avett Brothers and local-boys-made-good Dr. Dog, as well as cold beer and a dry summer breeze, the whole evening was pretty much perfect.

Like the Dead, the continuum of Wilco's concertizing has come to matter far more than their individual albums. For the better part of the last decade, they've been more or less permanently on tour, so it should hardly come as a surprise that they've become a well-oiled rock 'n' roll machine.

Taking the stage, they launched into the robotic, neo-Neu trance-rock of "Art of Almost" and were nothing short of dazzling up until the show-closing victory lap through "The Late Greats." The in-between swung back and forth from maelstrom ("Misunderstood") to reverie ("She's a Jar"), from the comfort of the old ("Box of Letters") to the shock of the new ("Dawned on Me").The performance was only further enhanced by a prismatic light show and a stage set composed of hanging lengths of rope bedecked every few feet with knotted hanks of white fabric that looked, from a distance, like ghosts shimmying up to heaven.

Front man Jeff Tweedy, looking beardy and stout in a crisp, tailored suit, droopy-necked T-shirt, and not entirely flattering bowler, was in fine voice and good humor. Although it is not uncommon for Tweedy to vibe a certain pinched sourness that suggests he is the only person at a Wilco concert not having the time of his life, on Saturday night, he genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself, evincing the younger, more innocent garage-band version of himself, the one who still loves rock 'n' roll, and the simple, ineffable joy of — as he sang on "Heavy Metal Drummer" — playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.

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