Show and Tell: Learning to Embrace Wilco's Whole Love Story

Was it worth the wait for Wilco? The answer is on the way, guaranteed to arrive a lot sooner than the band's next scheduled visit to Denver.

One of America's finest and hardest-working alternative rock/country acts is back on the road this month, resuming their tour in support of their Grammy-nominated 2011 album, The Whole Love.

The first stop of the 2012 leg that began 10 consecutive sold-out dates was the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver on January 19. For frontman Jeff Tweedy, it had a familiar, uh, smell to it.

With the emphasis on playing rock idol instead of making idle chatter, Tweedy (right) finally addressed the sellout crowd seven tunes into the lively, 26-song set.

"Hey! How's it going?" he asked, seemingly relaxed but reserved. "Is pot legal here? Sort of? Somewhat? It smells legal. It smells very legal."

The smoke signals were evident in a state where medical-marijuana dispensaries have flourished since voters passed an amendment at the turn of the century. And, obviously, the question received the appropriate response from a mixed crowd of party animals, hippie wannabes and the occasional grandma and grandpa.

Not that Tweedy needed any tricks up his sleeve on this night. He sounded happy to be back at the Fillmore, the rock palace adorned with crystal chandeliers, for the first time since 2007. (Wilco did play at Red Rocks in 2009.)

With original bassist John Stirratt (left), longtime drummer Glenn Kotche and later additions Nels Cline (trippy electric guitar wizard), Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards) and Pat Sansone (practically everything else but the kitchen sink), the heart, mind and soul of Wilco leafed through the band's vast musical songbook by including selections from all eight studio albums.

At first glance, the stage design appeared to be the result of a kid's TP-ing prank, looking like rolls of Charmin hanging from the rafters. But with a dazzling lighting display, the hanging white sheets became an eerie symbolic reminder for a band and its believers that ghosts do exist.

For someone seeing them live for the first time, it was quite a history lesson, with the night's offerings including "Box Full of Letters," their first single from their first album (A.M.) that was released in 1995, and Being There's "Red-Eyed and Blue," a song Tweedy introduced by rhapsodizing about "the summer of '83 ... it was raining ... I had just gotten my teeth cleaned."

Late to the party, my radar finally detected Wilco around the start of the new millennium, when a co-worker deemed them "the country's best rock 'n' roll band... period." Then there was the captivating I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which documented the bad bloodletting that led to the late Jay Bennett's imminent departure from the band. Meanwhile, ensuing battles with Reprise forced Wilco to find another label for 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, their best record of that decade.

Tony Margherita, the band's prescient manager, is shown during the making of the film saying, "This is the record that needs to take the band to another level. If that didn't happen, it would be a tragic sort of missed opportunity and it would damage the band."

The drama drew me in further, but I remained an admirer from afar.

So this Denver show provided a rare up-close and persuasive point of view. It came as no surprise that Wilco focused heavily on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with seven selections on the 26-song setlist, most notably "Heavy Metal Drummer." The defining chorus -- "Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned" -- circulated from the front of the stage to the elevated bird's-eye-view seats in the back. While the six songs from The Whole Love (see the entire setlist here) didn't evoke nearly the same response, there's reason to believe it will be the album of this decade for Wilco.

The inventive thread that has held firmly throughout Tweedy and Co.'s daring and dynamic career is evident again on The Whole Love, their first record on their own label (dBpm Records).

It includes all the bells and whistles, driven by Cline's scratching and screeching on songs such as "Art of Almost" and "Dawned on Me" that take Tweedy's catchy pop sensibilities and surreal lyrics into uncharted territory. "Born Alone" begins pleasantly enough, with a melody similar to the New Pornographers' "Myriad Harbor," then descends ominously through what Tweedy explained in The Atlantic was a Shepard Tone, a series of chords that make listeners feel like they're on the Highway to Hell -- and enjoying it. The circus atmosphere of "Capitol City," with the sounds of carnival barkers, carousel-like notes and church bells, is a nostalgic time warp, an updated companion piece to the Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."

It's no wonder Rolling Stone found a place for The Whole Love in its top 10 albums of 2011, "with the band at its original endearing best," even though only two actually remain. While Wilco delivered to Denver almost all the crowd-pleasing rockers off the album in exceptional fashion, they disappointingly skipped "Standing O," which was listed on the original printed setlist to follow "Heavy Metal Drummer" during the 30-minute encore. With Cline's blazing guitars and Jorgensen's peppy organ recalling Steve Nieve's contribution to Elvis Costello's "Radio, Radio," hopefully it'll become a staple on future dates as the tour continues up and down the West Coast before heading to Europe at the end of February.

Tweedy's bend-but-don't-break vocals still have an Everyman quality, and despite the shaggy hair and scruffy beard, he projects a sharp presence, whether the accessory is his 1950s Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar with the cursive inscription "Bob" or his 1966 Rickenbacker 365 in Fireglo finish purchased about a year ago.

If Wilco is slowing down, as some critics have suggested, it isn't affecting their status in the pop culture mainstream scheme of things.

Just this week, after performing "Whole Love" on Conan O'Brien's TBS talk show, they became animated characters in a comic strip and black-and-white video featuring another American icon, Popeye the Sailor Man, and his sidekicks.

Despite all the extra attention, Tweedy realizes the real secret to Wilco's success. After thanking the Denver Fillmore folks publicly for having the group back again, Olive Oyl's new love interest said, "It's a pretty sweet joint you got here; it's a good rock 'n' roll joint; the chandeliers; I don't think anything rocks without chandeliers. That's just where I am in my life. You need a fuckin' chandelier to rock."

While some expected a marathon night, most seemed satisfied with a hard-hitting finale dominated by Being There numbers such as "I Got You (At The End of the Century)" and "Outtasite (Outta Mind)."

Tweedy began the encore by admitting, "I started a lot of tours here but I can feel this altitude in my haunches."

Yet, like a certain cartoon character, he was strong to the finish, smiling down the stretch in a four-guitar assault that included Sansone impersonating Pete Townshend's windmill moves.

After two hours of affirmative action, the answer to that initial question should be as plain as black and white for anybody who can read between the lines. If not, here goes:

Wilco will remain a popular drawing card until they decide to fade to black. And, as evidenced by the black-and-white video below, Jeff Tweedy proves again he knows how to carry a pretty good 'toon.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas.

See a slideshow of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver:

See the Wilco and Popeye video directed by Darren Romanelli:

See the Conan Web Exclusive of Wilco's "Dawned On Me" on January 23: