Wilco grows onto bigger stages

Jeff Tweedy (left) leads Wilco during the band's  concert Oct. 9, 2010, at the Orpheum in Memphis.

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Jeff Tweedy (left) leads Wilco during the band's concert Oct. 9, 2010, at the Orpheum in Memphis.

Wilco's versatile longtime lineup (from left): multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone, frontman Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt and guitarist Nels Cline.

Zoran Orlic

Wilco's versatile longtime lineup (from left): multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone, frontman Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt and guitarist Nels Cline.

Twenty-two years ago, Jeff Tweedy played Memphis for the first time with his former group Uncle Tupelo at the Antenna Club, the lamented Midtown punk venue.

"I do remember the show," Tweedy says with a chuckle. "I don't remember it being very well populated, though."

On Saturday, Tweedy returns to the Bluff City with his long-running, critically acclaimed rock band Wilco to a much larger reception, as the group kicks

off the Mud Island Amphitheatre's annual summer concert series.

While Tweedy recently has been recording with soul legend Mavis Staples, working on a follow-up their 2010 album You Are Not Alone, and collecting material for a new Wilco LP ("I'm always sketching lyrical and musical ideas," he says), he's spent 2012 mostly in touring mode.

Wilco's current trek will take them around the world over the next three months and onto massive outdoor stages, such as Spain's Primavera Sound Festival and the group's own multiday Solid Sound festival in Massachusetts.

For a band that's historically rooted in the bar and club scene, Tweedy says Wilco has had to develop an understanding of how to tailor its shows to larger venues and crowds as its popularity has grown.

"It's pretty silly not to pay attention to what your environment is like when you're playing music," Tweedy says.

"I think we're still probably most comfortable in a nice-sized club or small theater. But we've gotten to where we can really adapt to the bigger stages and we can expand our production in ways that make for a good show. And that's not easy. We looked at it as a challenge for a long time."

Tweedy is quick to point out that Wilco remains a musical outfit first and foremost. "Well, we don't stand up and throw shapes (strike poses) at the audience. We still predominantly let the music do the talking. But I think the songs you choose to present is obviously going to make a difference," he says.

"There are some songs that just aren't ever going to reach past the 10th row. But we're fortunate to have a ton of material, and we can draw upon the stuff that's a little bit bigger and reaches a little bit further out to the nether regions of a large audience. It's like Neil Young said: 'You gotta be singing like you're singing to the last person in the last row.' I don't think that's a bad way to look at it."

Wilco's recent set lists have found them bunching tracks from specific albums. The group's now-longstanding lineup — which includes bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen — is an especially versatile unit, capable of convincingly mustering tunes stretching the band's entire catalog, from 1995's debut, A.M., to last year's The Whole Love.

"Some songs we play better than we've ever been able to play. This band is much more finely tuned to all the different material," Tweedy says. "We can play anything off of any record, pretty much. It might not be perfect, but we'll try it."

Concerts on the group's current Southern swing have included multiple encores filled with earlier material, especially songs off 1996's double-disc triumph, Being There, which is a boon to the group's longtime fans.

"There are definitely songs that I've come to appreciate more over time. At one point, I really wanted to outgrow them," Tweedy says. "And I think Wilco did outgrow them. But now it's kind of nice to play them. I recognize the fact that there are people coming who are excited to hear songs that have been a part of their lives for a long time.

"That's not to say you shouldn't force people to listen to the stuff you're most excited about, too. I think you should be squarely planted looking forward," he says.

"But to be in a position of having something that people want from you that you can give them is a nice thing. I don't feel like it's pandering at all. I think it's acknowledging and honoring the fact that all music is a collaboration with the listener. That's certainly the way we feel about it."

Wilco, Purling Hiss

8 p.m. Saturday at the Mud Island Amphitheatre, 125 N. Front. Tickets: $42; available at all Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com or (800) 745-3000.

© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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