In recent years, perhaps no group's demise has been mourned as much as Uncle Tupelo's. Between 1990 and 1993, the Belleville, Illinois band released four brilliant albums of vintage flavored country-rock that barely scratched the commercial surface but helped spawn the sub-genre of alternative country. When Jay Farrar left Uncle Tupelo in 1994 to form Son Volt, co-Tupelo frontman Jeff Tweedy responded by heading into the studio and recording an album (1995's "A.M.") with the recently expanded Tupelo lineup, re-christened as Wilco.
Wilco followed up "A.M." with last year's sprawling Being There, an ambitious, moody double album that made many critics' year-end "Best of" lists. But when Tweedy brought his "Wilco over America" tour to a sold-out New York concert that was being taped for an HBO special, the band's 22-song, two-hour set was determined to justify the group beyond the shadow of Tupelo or the Volt.
Opening with a pair of songs from "Being There," Tweedy and his bandmates quickly demonstrated how different the live beast of Wilco is from its tamer studio incarnation. Drummer Ken Coomer gave the swirling crescendo finale of "So Misunderstood" a steady pulse and drive, while Tweedy's luminescent vocal turn on "Far Far Away" imbued the song with the sagebrush-blowing, prairie tranquillity of Willie Nelson's "Stardust."
"Things have been going pretty well for Wilco this year, what with the passenger jets and all, but this number takes us back to the days of cat food," Tweedy told the crowd before "That's Not the Issue," a song that would have sounded right at home on the old "Hayride" TV program, with or without the haunting strains of grandma's scratchboard.
Tweedy then traded his acoustic guitar for an electric one as Wilco cranked up a new, full-tilt boogie version of "Red-Eyed and Blue," whose choppy guitar outro was given a J. Geils/Heartbreakers type workout, and ushered in the dancing at the end of the millennia scorcher, "I Got You (at the End of the Century)."
All the members of Wilco, including the usually soft-spoken Tweedy, appeared to be in jovial moods, a state of mind which was not lost on the crowd. When one member of the audience was accosted by bouncers after he jumped onstage and grabbed a mic during "Someone Else's Song," Tweedy laughed, saying "Hey, go easy, he's probably a better singer."
After rolling out the jazz for "Why Would You Wanna Live," the band bristled though "All Down the Line" rockers "I Must Be High" and a Ramones-ish re-take of "Passenger Side." Following a particularly ebullient "Monday," Tweedy smiled and said, "Whew, we might have to do that one again." The happy frontman traded solos with guitarist Jay Bennett on the CCR swamp-rocker, "Kingpin," then ended their regular set with "Outtasite (Outta Mind)," leaving the stage bathed in an Okefenokee shade of blue-green lights.
Wilco quickly reappeared, and as the band launched into the first of three sets of encores, Tweedy addressed the band's role and position as statesman for the burgeoning alterna-country movement. "Well, we're going to play some more rock & roll for you, which, you know, is always in style. People always ask, 'Where'd you get that style?' and I'm always like, man, it's always been there."
Tweedy also abandoned his guitar, claiming it would make him "less static," and led his fellow Wilco-ers through the rollicking charge of a revamped "Box Full of Letters" (complete with a full frontal stage dive by the singer), and "Casino Queen," which segued into a J.J. Cale meets the Stones coda, with the band throwing in bits and pieces of "Dueling Banjos" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" for its own irreverent "American Trilogy."
Tweedy then revisited familiar stomping grounds with a pair of Tupelo numbers, "We've Been Had" and "The Long Cut," the latter of which dovetailed into a frantic, messy version of "Dreamer in My Dreams," which was briefly interrupted for a band inaugurated food fight with leftovers from its complimentary backstage spread. When the group returned for their third encore, Tweedy admitted, "We just don't know when to stop."
Wilco finished the night by paying homage to both the '60s and '70s with a spirited rendition of the Shirelles' Carole King-penned doo-wop classic, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" -- a number that so moved Tweedy that he wandered out into the Irving Plaza crowd, offering up the song's lover's lament from one person to another.