Two decades ago, Wilco were a band on life support. Their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was so emphatically rejected by their label that they streamed it for free on their website – in 2001, a daring move – and subsequently drummed up enough enthusiasm for them to be promptly scooped up by another imprint of the same record company. Since then, Jeff Tweedy’s troupe have become one of the US’s most reliable and cherished rock bands, a potent and award-winning combination of roadhouse swagger and arthouse introspection.
After a two-year break – triggered by their drummer Glenn Kotche relocating to Finland so his wife could pursue a Fulbright scholarship – Wilco have returned with an imminent 11th album, the brazenly titled Ode to Joy, but the six-piece sound so fluid and relaxed it is as if they have never been away. During their furlough, Tweedy published a vivid and bracing memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), and it perhaps feels as if he is done with small talk: with his curls tucked into a dark beanie hat, he limits his audience interactions to the odd wave and a cheery “We’ve got a lot to get through!” during a crammed two-hour set.
The overall vibe is pleasingly languid, and Wilco have plaintive and woozy grooves to spare, from the ramshackle strum of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart to the plaintive sway of Handshake Drugs. New songs such as White Wooden Cross and the swaying Love Is Everywhere (Beware) hold their own among beloved frazzled classics but if Wilco sometimes threaten to wander into proficient but woolly noodling, guitarist Nels Cline reliably pulls out a rip-snorting solo that sharpens up their sound.
For the receptive crowd, it is a spirit-raising ceremony of hardscrabble communion; Tweedy has a knack for writing songs that echo universal feelings of inadequacy and longing. The irony is that his band sound stronger than ever, emphasised by a climactic run-through of The Late Greats, a sly alt-country barnstormer that still sounds vital 15 years on. Here’s hoping we get another 15.