“Just shut the fuck up and listen to an album,” said frontman Jeff Tweedy of Wilco to a sold-out College Street Music Hall Sunday night. “We like albums. And we know you like albums, too.”
Such devotion to album production has brought renown to the Chicago-based alternative-rock group. Wilco builds records holistically, emphasizing artistry at the expense of more lucrative singles like those that crowd the charts. After forming in 1994 under the aegis of country-rock, around the turn of the millennium the band began jettisoning violins and simple blues modes for a more innovative aesthetic. Their 2002 LP “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” distilled the sound Radiohead and Coldplay developed on the other side of the Atlantic. A nation still reeling from 9/11 dubbed the album a masterpiece of the modern age, an affected inauguration of the jagged pain and disillusion inherent to 21st-century life.
In the 14 years since, popular music has pivoted from the album-based economy that lent artists like Wilco airplay, sales and reputation. A band without singles fares about as well as a canoer without an oar: buoyant with little advance. That the group opened Sunday’s show with their newest album, “Star Wars,” played in full without omission, comes as little surprise from an act with a starving artist’s self-respect and self-preservation — the 2015 release failed to ascend the Billboard 200, despite critical acclaim.
“Star Wars” translates better to the stage. Live, the full range of influences picked up through two decades of writing and recording and touring pit stop for display. “EKG,” the opening track, kick-starts like a lo-fi rendition of The Clash; “More…” commences like Neutral Milk Hotel with a hook that evokes Television; “Where Do I Begin” crashes closed with backward-recorded cymbals reminiscent of “Magical Mystery Tour;” “Magnetized” ticks forward under a baleful double-tracked vocal that might as well have been lifted from a late Lennon recording. Still, Wilco mostly eschews straying too far from the distinct form fans and critics have come to expect, gracefully combining the better ingredients of their forebears in a uniquely poised medley of sound.
The venue lent a noteworthy assist. College Street Music Hall, a recent addition to New Haven’s reviving downtown, framed the performance with state-of-the-art light design and commensurate acoustic architecture. Tweedy and his cohort of seasoned veterans, warmed to venues many times College Street’s capacity, elevated the Hall to new heights at which the audience could almost “taste the ceiling,” “could almost feel the sun.”
Sixty minutes into the over-two-hour set — which included an acoustic encore relying on songs released before the group’s 2002 breakout — Tweedy thanked the audience for “still listening to full albums,” a less-than-subtle hit at declining CD demand, and the band transitioned from the new album to classics from the archive.
The subsequent set borrowed heavily from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” with fan favorites pulled from every record: “Jesus, Etc.” utilized a lap slide guitar in lieu of strings; “Via Chicago,” an angsty track about losing home, “buried alive” the audience “in a fireworks display;” Nels Cline’s steel-melting solo on “Impossible Germany,” fearless and layered with old-school virtuosity, was the concert’s apex.
Above all else, Wilco recognized the audience’s time. By any standard, the concert, spanning almost 30 songs, approached Springsteenian lengths, with sparsely a word exchanged between numbers. Certainly the pace honored an unspoken commitment to probity. Wilco, a group famously fixated on projects complete with cinematic coherence, is proud of its independence and integrity: Its members titled their eighth album “The Whole Love;” their most recent release kindles George Lucas’s fantasy epic.
Twenty-two years after starting up in small-town southern Illinois, the band still embraces a two-way respect for musicianship. Wilco has never dropped its demand for patience from its supporters and discipline from its audience — for the give-and-take and simple hope that they will “shut the fuck up and listen” to what’s been forged by craftsmen thoughtful about their trade.
On Sunday evening, that dual demand and hope were on full display, and they continue to shake the tall buildings along College Street.