Friday August 3, 2012

NORTH ADAMS -- With eight proper studio albums in 16 years -- not counting a live album, live DVD, documentary film, and its multiple-volume collaboration with Billy Bragg -- Wilco’s catalog is ever-more sprawling. It’s not the number of projects that’s so important, of course, or even the body count of band alumni from the days when major lineup shifts accompanied each album.

Wilco has traversed a great deal of artist ground, from the ashes of the alt-country movement to the deceptively poppy experiments of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" to the weirdly adult-contemporary sound they achieved after adding noise-guitar hero Nels Cline for "Sky Blue Sky."

And so, for a two-and-one-half hour concert like the benefit concert it performed for Mass MoCA on Tuesday night (generous by multiple measures), this band can assemble into any number of possible shapes.

For a slow-building stretch at the start, it proved itself a hulking, murky monster, awakening only on its own terms and timeline but ready to bite at any moment. From there, though, Wilco settled onto a cheerful plateau, amiably occupying the safe middle ground between its propensity for thorny moodiness and its lesser-indulged bar band tendencies.

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The concert, donated to the museum in lieu of the revenue-generating Solid Sound Festival (which will return for a third year next June), opened with the 11-minute meditation "One Sunday Morning." Its circular acoustic guitar figure and linear melody gave way patiently to the humid noise-scape cloaking "Poor Places," which took its time building intensity before surging to full volume.

The almost dream-like sequence continued with "Art of Almost," off the band’s 2011 album "The Whole Love," where skittery drum beats from Glenn Kotche and impressionistic video projections combined with frontman Jeff Tweedy’s probing vocals to mesmerizing effect. Loud chords from Cline signaled the opening of a noisy outro jam that saw the band breathing fire as he approximated the sound of an aircraft engine.

But the set would soon move more along the lines of the essentially cheerful, intelligent pop of Wilco’s last album, like "I Might" and "Born Alone." (Both tunes, by the way, had their live premiere at last year’s festival.) This was the least animated I’ve seen Cline, and even his signature solo in "Impossible Germany," for all its note-mashing fury, felt rote.

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The lasting import of the show, really, was in its continuation of the special relationship between this band and the Berkshires. Tweedy, who typically is content to go long onstage stretches without addressing the crowd, offered warm words for MoCA director Joe Thompson, saying "I don’t know anyone with a better energy and spirit than that guy."

There was a time when the rock press awaited each Wilco album to see what direction it would take. The modus operandi of the band’s last two records seems to be to mix and match from among its various guises, offering a little of this and a little of that.

A new, acoustic arrangement of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," usually a Kraut-rocking rager, was of particular interest. Rather than burning the stage down, this take could have been sung around a campfire.

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If this performance was wanting in sharp corners and a sense of danger, the band seemed finely tuned and doing exactly what it wanted. Though it never fails to pack some discord and dissonance into the package, right now Wilco is a bit more enthused by the sing-along, as it were. I find this shape less compelling, but it’s worth sticking around and seeing what happens next.