Frontman/guitarist Jeff Tweedy is the oldest twenty-something around and altogether he’s a jumbled jigsaw. His swagger channels early Bruce Springsteen, the sly smile between sets or during solos mirrors an older, wiser Tom Petty, and his chalky harmonies date back to late Van Morrison. That’s not to say Tweedy isn’t himself, but for those unable to catch any of the five residency shows here in Chicago, I’m trying to throw some images at you.
Thousands of Chicagoans and travelers from afar packed into the balmy, sweaty Riviera Theater tonight, ready to see their favorite “local band.” They’re a different breed from the usual crowd, however. These are devoted fans, standing anxiously after having waited an hour or so, outside in the chilly February cold. Several kids sport dated Wilco tour shirts, buttons that scream “Wilco Now”, and smiles in anticipation of what’s to come.
Right on time, Wilco is out and following “Someone Else’s Song”, they rip straight into a soaring performance of “Hell is Chrome.” Tweedy, sporting a Canadian Tuxedo, is in good form. He’s waving around, smiling, and interacting with the audience fives minutes in. The real treat to watch, however, is guitarist Nels Cline, who shreds into the guitar neck as if he’s been held in solitary confinement for a year.
Before the audience knows what’s hit them, they’re already straight through “Handshake Drugs”, “Muzzle of Bees”, the always exceptional live rendition of “Via Chicago” (complete with pounding “fireworks” sounds), and a sexy, even edgy performance of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Many bands might struggle to follow a ricochet of hits like that, but then again, it’s Wilco.
Things go wild toward the middle, during the solo section of “Impossible Germany”, where Cline trades riffs off of multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. It’s a perfect song, given the 70’s undertones, and the band takes note of this. Cline and Sansone hit the left and right, the highs and lows. Even Tweedy gets in on the action. It’s unbelievable, yet only 45 minutes in.
Most of the set list is littered with songs from the band’s back catalog, namely 1995’s A.M and 1996’s Being There. However, I don’t think anyone expected the rare performance of “Just That Simple.” Switching instruments with Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt slings on an acoustic guitar and belts out an earnest, electrifying folk song. It goes over well with the crowd and applause follows Stirratt, who hides behind the bass shortly after. A song or two later, Tweedy sets the fans on fire by introducing special guest, Andrew Bird.
Bird, whose head pokes up from under a red scarf, holds the violin and bows in the wealth of applause. Immediately, they kick into a perfect rendition of “Jesus, Etc.” It’s interesting to see how accepting and familial a band like Wilco can be. In just moments, an outsider/newcomer like Bird is a part of the act, as if nothing happened. He stays for a good cut of the set, something like seven more songs (on and off, of course), including the soft, endearing closer “Lonely One”.
Before the intermission, Tweedy calls in a horn section. This is where things start to spice up. Rather than opt for a stripped down approach, songs like “Walken” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” are full with life and color. It’s rich to hear these songs live, without losing the flavor they account for on disc. The same should be said of the electronic heavy (no pun intended), “Heavy Metal Drummer”, which the band opens with following a ten minute intermission.
Yes, there’s an actual intermission.
Something like 30 songs are played by the show’s end. It’s been a long, memorable night, but one for the cards. Watching his fans cheer for more, Tweedy seems enthused, if not tired (his voice sounds shaken during “Walken”), while behind him, drummer Glenn Kotche is drenched in sweat, breathing exhaustively and shaking his head. They do, after all, have three more shows left.
Still, they manage a two song encore.
Wilco is a rock band. They’re a country band. Hell, the Grammy’s once labeled them alternative. Call them what you will. But, titles aside, Wilco is strictly an honest to God, no strings attached, full on rock experience. If tonight is any indication of the band’s future, fans will be shelling out hundreds of bucks come 2021 and will still manage to walk out ready for more. It’s no surprise the following tour is already sold out. My only regret is turning down the five night ticket.
Someone Else’s Song
Hell Is Chrome
Muzzle of Bees
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Shot In The Arm
Just That Simple
When You Wake Up Feeling Old
Too Far Apart
Hate It Here
Jesus, Etc (Andrew Bird)
Forget The Flowers (Andrew Bird)
Dash 7 (Andrew Bird)
Christ For President (Andrew Bird)
I’m The Man Who Loves You (Horns)
Heavy Metal Drummer
Red Eyed & Blue (Andrew Bird) ->
I Got You (Andrew Bird)
Magazine Called Sunset
Passenger Side (Andrew Bird)
Dreamer In My Dreams (Andrew Bird)
Lonely One (Andrew Bird)
++pictures courtesy of Sam O’ Rama