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Wilco: The Wiltern Theatre – Los Angeles

Jun. 25 2009, Updated 5:57 a.m. ET

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When major label orphan Wilco was finally able to release its make-or-break “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album in 2002, it surprised and stunned listeners with a masterwork that vaulted it in to the pantheon of America’s greatest bands.

Seven years on, the latest and best incarnation of the thinking person’s rock group is still surprising and stunning -- especially in concert.

The ever-inventive sextet’s first of two sold out shows at L.A.’s Wiltern Theater on Monday June 22nd -- just a week ahead of the release of its seventh studio LP “Wilco (The Album)” -- was a clamorously fun master class in balls out rock ‘n’ roll.

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All of band leader Jeff Tweedy’s influences and heroes --The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Replacements, Gram Parsons, Television, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Steely Dan  Sonic Youth, alt country, prog rock, ambient, techno even The Great American Songbook – were on display and frappe’d beautifully through the Wilco blender in the live setting.

A packed house hung and sung on every word of every song from the time the band bounded on stage to the strains of the game show theme song “The Price Is Right” and launched into the in your face pop rock of “Wilco (The Song)” from the new album at 9:15 p.m., to the last verse of the fourth encore song of “Hummingbird” from 2004’s Grammy winning “A Ghost Is Born” two hours later.

The eclectic Chicago-based band that now consists of longtime Wilco bassist/harmony vocalist John Stirratt, avant garde guitar hero Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and multi-armed instrumentalist Pat Sansone has jelled into a unit that can indulge all of the ever-sly Tweedy’s whims and whimsy.

And while he has turned into a front man that is somewhat reminiscent of heyday Ray Davies, Tweedy has found the perfect foil to his wildest guitar fantasies in Cline – who can morph into Richard Lloyd, Adrian Belew or Thurston Moore and create his own special brand of crazed, discordant six string mayhem at the slightest prompting.

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And Tweedy was obviously loving every moment and every lick provided by the tall, geeky fret board prodigy. After Cline turned the happy-go-lucky “Impossible Germany” from 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky” LP into one of Wilco’s most torrid live guitar jams ever, Tweedy beamed to the audience “That’s the guy.” Then he deferentially turned to the lead guitarist and said “Thank you for being born and bred.”

While it lost some of the Wilco musical nuance on-stage – keyboards and harmonies were at times subdued in the mix – the band made up for it in energy and muscle. The anthemic “So Misunderstood” from 1996’s “Being There” became a thunderous stomp of a song.

And as usual there was the menace, darkness and angst that percolate lyrically and musically through even the sweetest of the Wilco’s bittersweet love songs and folk tales for the disenfranchised.  

Cline’s guitar thunder galvanized a number of the Wilco folk rock classics including “Box Of Letters” from 1995’s “A.M.” and a “Shot In The Arm” from 1999’s “Summerteeth”,  and the go-for-broke band was smiling and enjoying themselves on-stage as much as the wildly dancing audience.

The lyrics of the band’s opening song promised “Wilco (will) love you, baby.” And as far as the boisterous crowd at the Wiltern was concerned, it was “Back at you guys” throughout the show.

(PHOTO CREDIT: AUTUMN DE WILDE)

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