Monday night, Wilco gave the Orpheum Theater a real workout.
The renovated theater a few steps from Canal Street has hosted two performances by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra since reopening, but the veteran rock band tested it with a show that threw everything at the building, from rock power chords to atonal noise to campfire sing-alongs. The verdict: The building, and the sold-out audience, did just fine.
The night started bravely when the band came onstage to the abrasive strains of “EKG” over the PA system. The song opens “Star Wars,” an album that Wilco released without fanfare or cost in July, giving it away as a download.
Opening a show with the new album was almost as unlikely as giving it away, but Wilco did both. It devoted the first 45 minutes of Monday’s show to playing “Star Wars” in its entirety.
Wilco has historically shown a lot of faith in its audiences. But the crowd was with the band for “Star Wars,” partly because the album is pop by Wilco’s standards — catchy and frequently augmented with attractive vocal harmonies.
At the same time, the songs sounded familiar. That’s partly a function of the band having recorded nine studio albums on its own since the 1995 release of its debut album, “A.M.,” but it’s also a product of Wilco’s magic.
Throughout its career, Wilco has synthesized the history of popular music into its songs, so no matter how obtuse a structure or abrupt a sonic shift, the band always provides familiar markers to keep listeners from getting lost.
It was easy to hear Bob Dylan in singer Jeff Tweedy’s vocals on the new “The Joke Explained,” and late in the set the version of “Kidsmoke” obviously borrowed from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
I heard references to David Bowie, Todd Rundgren and Television over the course of the night, and the new “Taste the Ceiling” was Americana made for the day scientists announced finding water on Mars.
The audience’s polite response during the “Star Wars” portion of the show may be a sign of how many people downloaded the album but don’t yet know it well, but the enthusiasm picked up markedly for “Handshake Drugs” — a crowd favorite and a better benchmark for how the Orpheum holds up as a rock ’n’ roll venue.
Each guitar in the band’s three-guitar attack was distinct and audible, as were the keyboards, drums and John Stirratt’s bass, which motored along with a clear, busy line that recalled Wings-era Paul McCartney. When Tweedy, Nels Cline and Pat Sansone united for a conclusion with three lead guitars, each had its own character and could be picked out.
Wilco was a good test for the Orpheum because each moment of beauty was just moments from a feedback storm, and every frenzied sonic squall could become something beautiful.
The lovely, lyrical “Via Chicago” was punctuated by moments of chaotic thunder from the rest of the band, while Tweedy gamely sang the song’s fragile melody.
On occasion, though, Wilco let a pretty moment remain pretty. Cline is responsible for much of the noise, but his solo in “Impossible Germany” remained lyrical throughout. On “Airline to Heaven,” a Woody Guthrie lyric with music by Wilco and Billy Bragg, the band brought out opening act William Tyler to create an atmosphere that was less country and more western as the spare arrangement and soaring guitars evoked wide-open spaces and broad vistas.
After an evening of occasionally complex rock ’n’ roll pleasures, Wilco got down to basics for its second encore. The band finished with a short acoustic set with all of the instruments miked onstage.
The harmonies remained clear, as did the acoustic guitars and Sansone’s banjo. When Tweedy stepped away from the microphone to sing part of the closing “A Shot in the Arm,” the audience members singing along more than carried the load. They knew the song well enough to sing it with passion, and it sounded big enough in the Orpheum to render Tweedy unnecessary for a moment.
In the end, Monday night was a good night for everybody. Wilco was adventurous, the audience was game and the Orpheum was up to the challenge.