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Review: Wilco @ Johnny Mercer Theatre
Jeff Tweedy (photo Geoff L. Johnson)

Seconds before Wilco opened its show this past Thursday night with the self-titled opening song "Wilco" from their newest album, the sell-out crowd at the Johnny Mercer Theatre stood up.

And stood. And stood. And stood some more.

The appreciative audience remainded standing, in fact, for pretty much the entire three-hour marathon concert (no opening band!). This rowdy yet ultimately respectful behavior reminded me just how starved Savannah is for real rock 'n' roll shows. All due respect to our fine local clubs, but it's rarer than a blue moon to be able to see a real concert here, with a full stage rig and lighting show in a large venue.

Old-timers among us remember when big-time rock acts were constantly in and out of the Civic Center. In the '70s and '80s, this place was Rock 'N' Roll Central, believe it or not. But by the 1990s that had almost all dried up for a variety of reasons, leaving local rock fans with little alternative but to drive to Charleston or Jacksonville or Atlanta.

So when the Savannah Music Festival announced Wilco was coming -- the so-called "American Radiohead," a critically-acclaimed stoner band with something approaching a cult following -- it was no surprise that it was the first sell-out and by far most high-profile show of the Festival.

The audience at this show, though enjoying themselves to the fullest, displayed none of the boorish behavior Savannah audiences have become known for. Whether this is because it was a Thursday night, or because of the vaguely hippie vibe of the band and its music, I'm not sure.

While I never caught a whiff of the chronic, it's safe to say this was an audience more, shall we say, laid back in its recreational activities than the usual belligerently drunk Savannah crowd that has so often marred the bigger shows here lately.

(To be fair, I have heard reports to the contrary. Suffice it to say I did not witness any untoward incidents.)

Ah, but what about the music, you ask? Well, come on, it was Wilco. They have one of the most unimpeachable pedigrees of any active American band (though frontman Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the only remaining founding members of the 15-year-old ensemble). They are a tight, professional unit that almost seamlessly blends roots rock, y'allternative country, and the sonic experimentation of the aforementioned iconic British hipster icons.

Interestingly, the setlist avoided overindulgence in the band's most well-known but perhaps weakest effort, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, instead concentrating on less forward-focused music such as the wonderful "California Stars," with lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Tweedy. Then again, we're talking a three-hour show here (no one can complain they didn't get their money's worth!). So it's safe to say the band played a wide range of material.

Tweedy himself, not communicating directly with the audience until a good seven or eight songs in, was nonetheless in his usual shaggy-dog good humor, at one point saying, "You have a lovely city -- thanks for inviting us."

Particularly impressive was the lush instrumentation, even more apparent live than on the band's multilayered albums. While the sextet's usual breakdown was two guitars/two keys/bass & drums, occasionally there would be a three-guitar lineup, which sounded particularly full and nice.

(At one point, amazing lead guitarist Nels Cline -- who is almost impossible to overpraise -- had a steel guitar in his lap and an electronic mandolin around his neck. There is nothing he can't play, and play extremely, extremely well, at least within the parameters of what this band does.)

A particular highlight was a quasi-acoustic middle section, during which the keyboardists came down front and even drummer Glenn Kotche stepped down to play a smaller kit.

The overall sound picture was complimented by a very appealing and appropriate set, including faux candelabras. During the acoustic section, the candelabras gave way to several faux Tiffany lamps. While perhaps intended as ironically self-deprecating, they were oddly appropriate for the overall tenor of the evening: intimate yet very special indeed.

What does this mean for the Savannah Music Festival? Surely there's no downside whatsoever. That said, I question how much outreach was really made.

On one hand, it was nice to see a younger crowd at a Festival event, many of which otherwise seem dominated by senior citizens. On the other hand, when Maria Lancaster came out to introduce the show and mention the Festival's role in it, many in the audience seemed to have no real clue what she was talking about.

(It might surprise you how many people in Savannah have never heard of the Savannah Music Festival. This is a source of unending bafflement and frustration for many of us in the cultural community, very likely including the Festival itself. For an event of such high quality with such local media saturation to continue to have issues with local publicity -- emphasis on local, since the Festival does a great job reaching outside markets - seems bizarre yet strangely unsurprising given the general apathy levels here.)

But as I said, there's no real downside, and many thanks go to the Savannah Music Festival for having the stones to bring this show to town. It's Wilco! 'Nuff said.