When your new album is bookended by two of your longest songs, it's generally not a good idea to start off with them back to back.
But over eight albums of stylistic experimentation, Wilco have earned the right to make their own rules. And they exercised that right Saturday at the historic Massey Hall, for the second of two Toronto concerts that marked the beginning of the tour for their latest LP, The Whole Love, which will be released next week.
The 12-minute "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," a gentle shuffle, recalled the Chicago band's early days, subtly showcasing each member's instrumental skills. Then the mood immedaitely changed as the lights dimmed, some bandmembers traded instruments, and Wilco launched into "The Art Of Almost," a bass-heavy rocker that dresses their melodic folk-rock in noisy guitars and psychedelic keyboard. Accompanied by a trippy light show and some serious instrumental scorch, the song is already establishing itself as the antidote to anyone who assumed their last two releases, Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), signified a slide into self-satisfied "dad rock."
After the Spoon-y first single "I Might," frontman Jeff Tweedy finally addressed the crowd. "Thanks for listening to the new tunes before they come out," he said. So the guinea-pig portion of the night was finished and Wilco were ready to reward their loyal fans with some beloved classics.
The first few strummed chords of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot standout "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" brought the crowd to their feet, where they would remain much of the night.
"Impossible Germany" was one of the set's many showcases for guitarist Nels Cline, who was treated to a well-deserved standing ovation after a lengthy classic rock inspired solo. The red-shirted Cline acquiesced with a demure bow, before Tweedy took the opportunity to embarrass him a little further: "You're making him blush. His shirt was black when we came out here."
Then Tweedy let the crowd handle sing-along vocals on the live standard "Jesus, Etc.," which they did so robustly he didn't have to sing at all.
Wilco went all out for their five-song encore set, with Pat Sansone stepping out from behind his keyboard to perform Pete Townsend style windmills on his guitar, while Tweedy let out a sustained high pitched squeal.
It was an incongruous way to end a performance that had started as an understated album preview, but Wilco have proved time and time again that the road often traveled is not the one for them.