The historic Orpheum Theatre celebrated its reopening last Monday with an exceptional performance from Wilco and an at-capacity crowd that marveled at the newest addition to the downtown theatre scene. The Orpheum, which will serve as the home of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, boasted immaculate acoustics that begged Wilco to explore with the space’s capacity for wide-ranging sound.
The band did not disappoint, delivering a 2+ hour set that included feedback-drenched drone, quiet acoustic finger-picking, and everything in between. Veteran bands with a beloved back catalog always face a challenge when they release a new album: they have to keep the die-hard fans happy by playing the classics, yet the new material is often more exciting for the band and drums excitement for the new album, attracting new fans. Rather than intersperse the set with tracks from their excellent new album, Star Wars, Wilco boldly decided to play the entire album front-to-back as the show opener.
The band blasted through the new songs with a precision and urgency that has been lacking from their recent releases. “Random Name Generator” and “Pickled Ginger” got an injection of energy in the live setting, while quieter tracks, such as “Where Do I Begin” and “Magnetized,” benefited from some extra flourishes absent on the record.
After thanking the crowd for listening to the new album, Jeff Tweedy led the band through a 14-song string of greatest hits. Wilco’s last trip to town was at Jazz Fest this past spring; unfortunately that set was cut short after only a few songs due to a menacing thunderstorm.
In a nod to that abbreviated set, the band started its run of classics with the same two songs that started their Jazz Fest set, “Handshake Drugs” and “Camera.” Wilco rattled the walls of the theater with the chaotic cacophony of “Via Chicago” and brought the crowd to transcendent heights through the dueling guitar solos of “Impossible Germany.”
The band welcomed guitarist William Tyler (who opened the show) on their cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Airline to Heaven” before closing out the set with a triumphant “The Late Greats.” With all the classics already played, there was one obvious choice left for the encore: “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” The epic song started with a hypnotic rhythm that slowly built to an explosive crescendo that was perfectly synchronized with the band’s custom lighting rig. After 15 minutes, Wilco, once again, thanked and excited the crowd. For the finale, the band had one last trick up its sleeve.
As stagehands bustled around the stage, the band re-emerged, this time armed with nothing but acoustic guitars, a melodica and drum brushes. Tweedy quietly strummed his guitar and sang the lines, “You’re back in your old neighborhood / the cigarettes taste so good / but you’re so misunderstood,” as the band gradually joined him for “Misunderstood,” the opening track off 1996’s Being There. NOLA native John Stirratt, usually in the backset on bass and back-up vocal duties, lead the band through a subdued take on “It’s Just That Simple.” The band closed it out with a gorgeous take on “A Shot in the Arm,” a usually rollicking song that became a delicate prayer in the stripped-down setting.
Wilco, once again, made its claim as one of the most talented rock bands in the world — arguably, fading uneasy memories of the band’s less popular albums and proving that Wilco can still deliver an unpredictably excellent show. Wilco’s confident performance yielded a generally positive reaction at the Orpheum’s reopening, likely beckoning another packed house at the theater’s next show.