Wilco + Jonathan Wilson – Academy, Manchester 25/10/11

Looking like he’s stepped right out of an Asylum Records publicity photo circa 1971, Jonathan Wilson seems intent to wind back the clocks to a groovier time when bands could easily justify drum solos, extended outbreaks of bluesy guitar acrobatics and having musicians mainly responsible for keeping the incense burning on stage, all of which feature tonight.

But first impressions can be deceptive. Wilson appears intent on shaking loose the laidback Laurel Canyon troubadour throwback image he’s been saddled with up to now. Accompanied by a four-piece band several shades grittier, noisier and funkier than the contents of wonderfully horizontal debut Gentle Spirit, tonight’s 50-minute showcase, culminating in a stunning widescreen cruise through heavy-lidded semi-protest ballad ‘Can We Really Party Today?’, finds Wilson raising his voice to electrifying effect, suggesting a talent far beyond the reaches of wannabe Neil Young stereotypes.

Ever since Wilco’s current six-piece line-up stabilised around 2006 after a period of intense internal turmoil, disputing the Chicago band’s live prowess has been a task best left for those who’ve mislaid their critical faculties.

Often in recent years, catching Wilco live has been like observing an expertly engineered machinery employed to carry out mundane routine tasks, as setlists have been clogged up by somewhat indifferent produce from underachieving recent albums Sky Blue Sky (2007) and Wilco (The Album) (2009).

The brand new, superb The Whole Love reverses the trend. The early stages of tonight’s show, delivered from a stage decorated with lampshades, suggest that the expanded line-up’s been administered (to borrow the title of a 1999 Wilco cut delivered especially rousingly tonight) ‘A Shot in the Arm’ by the rediscovered sharpness of bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting pen.

Accompanied by the loud thump of the wildly appreciative capacity crowd’s collective jaw hitting the floor, the first half-dozen tunes are delivered with an earth-trembling intensity most would spare for the final encore, with new album’s abstract opener ‘The Art of Almost’ – a supercharged cruiser gobbling down Autobahn asphalt – and the ominously galloping ‘Black Bull Nova’ both threatening to take the concrete box venue’s roof off.

With an average tour’s worth of thrills dispatched in the first 30 minutes, can they possibly maintain such an electrifying pace? Of course not. Although never less than thoroughly engaging, the prematurely peaking set comes across as oddly lopsided.

You can’t possibly question the band’s versatility, as Tweedy’s and avant-ace Nels Cline’s almost comically frequent guitar changes are matched by an equal number of audacious stylistic leaps that somehow cohere into a near-seamless whole. Neither are the band’s economically administered virtuoso skills ever in doubt: seemingly straightforward tunes wound up submerged in white noise so subtly you struggle to keep up, whilst the lovelorn acoustic sway of encore ‘Via Chicago’ carries on undisturbed underneath unexpected outbreaks of teeth-grinding cacophony.

Even so, there’s a slight feeling that the current line-up’s explosive dynamics risk becoming as predictable as the alt.country templates of Wilco’s earliest incarnation must have seemed to the creatively restless Tweedy, who, tweed-suited and hatted like a country squire, appears genuinely thrilled by the audience’s wild acclaim. When he’s not doing a brilliant job at whipping up hypnotic atmospherics, Cline’s speed limit-breaking histrionics in particular threaten at times to slide into needlessly showy territory. It might be telling that the least complex moments are amongst the most moving: the epic country-confessional ‘One Sunday Morning’ and the delicate whisper of ‘Rising Red Lung’ dare to strip down the band’s potentially massive sound to its base components for the first time in years, with stunning results.