Wilco mesmerizes at a reborn Peabody Opera House [Live Review]
A new concert venue can pose a lot of challenges for the band, promoter, venue employees and audience. Last night, however, the Peabody Opera House dazzled brightly for Wilco and special guest Nick Lowe.
The Opera House, again a polished jewel facing Market Street, helps to anchor a downtown that boasts entertainment venues, three major sports venues, museums, restaurants, hotels and more. After languishing dormant for 20 years, the building is reborn as a glimmering updated structure that will certainly become a destination for many touring musicians, comedians and touring shows.
With President Obama in town for a fundraiser and game three of the National League Championship Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies finishing up down the street at Busch Stadium, the atmosphere seemed right for a parking nightmare. However, it was easy to find free street parking near the venue and only resulted in walking a couple of blocks.
The clean lines of Art Deco mixed with early 20th century opulent details greets guests walking inside the main entry, reminding them of a time when architects gave great thought to the grandeur of public spaces and skilled artisans brought that vision to life.
Staircases on either side of the main hall lead visitors upstairs to a majestic two-story grand lobby. Last night people gathered and talked while bartenders served $9 drinks (beer and cocktails) from temporary bars just outside the main auditorium. A booth set up in the middle of the room sold merchandise for both artists including vinyl albums, cd’s, t-shirts, books, Limited edition posters specially made for the night sold for $25 while a yo-yo for Wilco’s new label dBpm Records went for $10.
Ushers dressed nicely in black vests and red shirts guided the audience to their seats, but without the "don't touch anything" attitude like those at the Fox Theatre. Settling into the comfortable new seats -- complete with drink holders -- located just off the center aisle about half way back I was able to absorb the space. The main auditorium is noticeably smaller than the 4,500 seat Fox Theatre in midtown – roughly 1400 seats smaller. A seating capacity of 3,100 allows the venue to fit nicely between the pedestrian Pageant and the ornate Fox Theatre.
Getting things started Nick Lowe, the 62-year-old English singer-songwriter, took the stage alone about 10 minutes after the reported start time. In fine form from the beginning, Lowe brought his clear voice to songs from his catalog and latest release, The Old Magic.
Lit from above with bright white light instead of the standard spotlight from the front, his shock of pure white hair glowing, Lowe easily breezed through a 12 song set. He deftly strummed his large Gibson acoustic guitar as his smooth vocals drifted through the house. The sound, crisp and clean as any I've heard, filled the space without overpowering. During quiet moments the large auditorium became a small club.
A couple of songs into the set, Lowe mentioned that he “used to come to St. Louis a lot, but through the years the invitations dried up.” He continued with the quip, “All is forgiven."
Moving through material from his 35 plus year career, Lowe performed pop gems that have influenced students of the songwriting craft for years. Well aware of his place on the bill, the artist received a good laugh from the early arriving crowd as he quoted Tom Waits “the opening act is the rectal thermometer for the audience.”
Searching way to promote the new release Lowe advised, "I have a new album out and don't want to miss an opportunity to do one from it, but I can't think of what to do..." Just then a shout from the quiet crowd came for "House For Sale," a perfect song about divorce seemingly made for the current recession, and Lowe happily obliged.
After his classic "Cruel To Be Kind," Lowe cryptically announced the next song was by an old friend before launching into the familiar beginning of the Elvis Costello classic “Alison.” In this beautiful acoustic version, Lowe highlighted melancholy lyrics of the bittersweet ballad adding a new dimension of loneliness to the song.
Finishing his set with his biggest song "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Lowe bowed graciously leaving the stage to copious applause from the audience who clearly wanted more.
Generous applause from the sold out crowd greeted Wilco as they took the stage about 20 minutes to 9 p.m. Flanked by an artistic backdrop reminiscent of a busy laundry day in the city when the auditorium opened in the 1930s, a myriad of lights projected on white bags strung from the rigging backstage. During many of the songs deep colors mixed with pastels to create what looked liked clouds reflecting the evening sunset on summer night. Conjuring the best reference possible I thought of the 1966 album cover art of Colors by voice over actor Ken Nordine as a possible inspiration.
Settling in easy, Wilco's set began without a bang as the band started into "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend),” the closing track off their new album, The Whole Love. Lights bathed the band in blue as the song crept slowly toward the ten minute mark in a jam band like trance.
Performing only the fifth show of their Fall tour promoting The Whole Love, the band led by singer and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy seemed relaxed, but tenuous at times, not quite hitting their stride with the new material yet. The main set featured a healthy dose of the new album and their 2001 breakthrough,Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Other albums received cursory touches coloring the set list with various eras of the band and it's round robin lineup changes that finally solidified in 2004.
An early highlight, the Radiohead-esque "Art of Almost" demonstrated a beautiful light display and guitarist Nels Cline playing three guitars in the same song. This shuffling of guitars would become somewhat comical as the show continued. Both Cline and Tweedy showed off their massive guitar collection keeping the techs busy backstage tuning and delivering instruments after each song.
Toward the middle of the main set the band seemed to get comfortable as the guitar jam of "Impossible Germany" took hold. Cline stretched out here as Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, guitarist/keyboardist Pat Sansone all looked on in admiration like the rest of the audience.
Throughout the performance I kept waiting for a spot where the sound might get muddled like The Pageant or lost in the space like the Fox Theatre. Neither scenario happened which made the set that much more enjoyable. This fact alone needs to be the selling point of the venue - a space that sounds so good that even the audiophiles in the audience will forget about their critiques and enjoy the show.
Digging deep into the back catalog for "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" from A.M. there was an undercurrent of uneasiness playing an older track with this newer material. However, the band quickly recovered and as an unexpected treat the band continued the mid-90s alt-country theme going with the Tweedy penned Uncle Tupelo classic "New Madrid" sounding more confident.
Trying to remember something else he was going to tell the audience, Tweedy optimistically advised the "Cards will get them tomorrow night," referencing the local 9's loss earlier in the evening. He followed deadpanning, "I've got a lot invested in this. I love sportsball."
After the last notes of the post-modern couples skate “Jesus, etc.” subsided Tweedy finally mentioned the space in which he stood. Clearly impressed with the updated venue Tweedy marveled, "How bout this place? This place is cool!” He said that to him it will always be known as the Kiel Opera House and with a laugh he joked, “They don’t mind if I call it that.” Tweedy continued about another St. Louis landmark that sat dormant for many years, but received a loving restoration just over a decade ago, “We’re staying at the Chase [Park Plaza] and I was reminded by my friend Darin [Gray, bassist for On Fillmore with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche] we should be wrestling there."
Returning for the encore Tweedy admitted they were short on time, yet no one on stage seemed rushed or ready to quit playing. During this portion the band finally with "Via Chicago" complete with the mid-song freakout of lights and drummer Kotche. Getting the title track to the new album in next, Tweedy brought Lowe back out for a couple of full band numbers - Jim Ford's "36 Inches High" and the Lowe penned b-side to Wilco's lead single, "I Love My Label."
Unsurprisingly, the crowd erupted as the opening drumbeat of "Heavy Metal Drummer," with the St. Louis inspired line (I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands I used to go see on the landing in the summer), hit the speakers.
Recognizing the hometown connection Tweedy dedicated "Three former record store bosses who are here tonight" launching into the rousing alt-country rocker "Casino Queen" then ending the two-hour show on the upbeat stomper "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." For a fleeting moment it felt like 1996 and we were back at Mississippi Nights.
In terms of sound both Wilco and Nick Lowe put the venue though it’s paces testing the dynamics of the space from soft to loud and room sounded wonderful throughout. Kudos to both the sound man last night and the original architects of this building as their attention to detail made for a perfect entertainment experience.
Wilco set list
Peabody Opera House, St. Louis - 10/4/11
One Sunday Morning
The Art of Almost
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Bull Black Nova
Rising Red Lung
Shouldn't Be Ashamed
New Madrid (Uncle Tupelo)
War on War
Dawned On Me
A Shot in the Arm
36 Inches High - with Nick Lowe vocals (Jim Ford)
I Love My Label - with Nick Lowe (Nick Lowe)
Heavy Metal Drummer
I'm The Man Who Loves You
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
Nick Lowe set list
What's Shakin' On The Hill
All Men Are Liars
Lately I've Let Things Slide
I Live On A Battlefield
House For Sale
Cruel To Be Kind
Alison (Elvis Costello)
When I Write The Book
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding