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Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago Winterlude

on February 24, 2017, 5:11pm

Photography by Heather Kaplan

Missing one of Wilco’s hometown shows is a sin. If you’re a fan of Jeff Tweedy’s band of extremely talented misfits, then you know that the Chicago rockers tend to go “all out” when it comes to playing at home. That goes tenfold for whenever they decide to put on a residency-of-sorts, namely because they turn the entire thing into a colossal, can’t-miss event. Like back in 2011, when they staged The Incredible Shrinking Tour of Chicago, which saw them play the Civic Opera House, the Riviera, the Vic, the Metro, and finally, an unlikely appearance at Lincoln Hall. It’s quirky shit like this that makes them heroes here.

This year, as they continue to support their tenth studio album — last year’s exceptional Schmilco — the band opted to shake things up with another feat for themselves: headline the iconic Chicago Theatre. With the exception of a guest appearance during Conan O’Brien’s own residency at the State Street venue, Wilco had previously never top lined the prestigious theatre, which makes this run of four shows a specialty unto itself. Sure, it’s not as inventive as seeing them squeeze into one small venue after another, but it’s one hell of an upgrade from the damp and murky Riviera Theatre over in Uptown.

What’s more, it’s an ideal setting for their latest batch of work because, as they explained to us last year, they’ve reconfigured their entire stage show to be a little lighter and a little more acoustic. As such, the velvety confines of Chicago’s namesake theatre have proven to be quite ideal for Tweedy and the gang, whose quieter ballads have explored the lofty acoustics with delightfully intimate results. Even better, the crowds have been engaging and responsive to the new bummer jams and ballads, refusing to sit in their chairs, which is always a concern whenever any act steps foot in the venue.

With two more nights to go — sadly, two that this writer won’t be able to attend — we decided to do a little halftime breakdown and dissect the strengths and weaknesses of the first two nights. If you couldn’t tell, we’re set list junkies at Consequence of Sound, and Wilco is one of the best acts in the game when it comes to treating each night individually, especially when they’re kicking televisions back at home. It’s always a mind game as to what they’re going to play next, and while these two shows weren’t exactly shattering anyone’s expectations like years prior, there were plenty of surprises in store.

Shall we?

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The Opening Three

kaplan cos 2 22 wilco chicago 3 Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago Winterlude

Night One: “Ashes of American Flags”, “If I Ever Was A Child”, “Cry All Day”
Night Two: “Normal American Kids”, “If I Ever Was A Child”, “Cry All Day”

There’s not much competition here. “Ashes of American Flags” is a timeless fan favorite and it’s actually one of the few rarities to be heard off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What’s more, the song set the tone for the politically-flavored first night with a line like “I would like to salute/ the ashes of American flags/ and all the falling leaves/ filling up shopping bags.” Still, “Normal American Kids” is a delightful opener on Schmilco and the way it lead into the ensuing tracks off the album made it appear as if we might get a full-album performance similar to how they toured behind Star Wars. Alas, that was not the case.

Winner: Night One

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Album of the Night

During their residencies, Wilco tend to liberally draw from one or two of their past albums each night. And considering this is a supporting jaunt for Schmilco, we won’t count that album here, especially since it was clearly represented during both nights (with night two edging out night one, thanks to the inclusion of “Normal Audience Kids”).

For their first night, Wilco were only four songs short from performing all of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, having indulged the crowd with seven weighty cuts off the LP, specifically: “Ashes of American Flags”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Pot Kettle Black”, “Reservations”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, and “Jesus, Etc.”.

kaplan cos 2 22 wilco chicago 8 Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago Winterlude

The second night, however, saw the band embrace that album’s followup, 2004’s A Ghost is Born, with six selections: “Company In My Back”, “At Least That’s What You Said”, “Theologians”, “Hummingbird”, “The Late Greats”, and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. Though, if we’re splitting hairs, Ghost was only one track ahead of the night’s allotment for Yankee and Being There.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of crossovers for both nights — ahem, “Reservations”, “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, “Jesus, Etc.”, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, “Hummingbird”, “The Late Greats” — but the second night offered a left hook with four divine inclusions from Being There (“Forget the Flowers”, “Red Eyed and Blue”, “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”, “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”) and a much rarer Yankee inclusion (“Radio Cure”) than anything heard on night one.

Winner: Night Two

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“Impossible Germany”

kaplan cos 2 22 wilco chicago 11 Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago Winterlude

Here’s a fun fact: According to Setlist.fm, “Impossible Germany” has been performed live by Wilco a jaw-dropping 616 times, which says something considering the song is only 10 years old this year. To be fair, this isn’t entirely surprising, considering it’s more of a rarity if they don’t play it on any given night. Guitarist Nels Cline wouldn’t have it any other way, though. This is his crown jewel — his “Freebird”, if you want to be lame about it — and the guy pours his fucking soul into every performance. And one thing you notice when you see Wilco on back-to-back nights is how the song does change.

Blame it on the mood of the evening, or possibly the crowd (more on that later), but Cline more or less poured butter on his guitar and sizzled the son of a bitch for the second night’s performance. You could tell something was going on too just by watching bassist John Stirratt’s face and the absolute joy he had watching Cline lose himself stage right without losing his own grip while keeping pace with drummer Glenn Kotche. Even Tweedy got in on the action, leaning against Cline as if the two were mugging for Cameron Crowe filming somewhere nearby. It was a pure rock ‘n’ roll moment.

That feeling was only exacerbated a few songs later when Cline was given a shiny white, double-neck axe to grind out the juxtaposing friendliness of The Whole Love hit “Dawned On Me”. Yeah, he was smiling. Everyone was.

Winner: Night Two

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Pat’s New Look

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Not only did Wilco come sporting a new stage show, but multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone arrived with a new look. These days, the mild-mannered genius behind everything from the keys to the guitar to the maracas to the xylophone is rocking a killer Civil War-era beard that’s only second to Mark Mulcahy’s. Although fashionistas say the beard’s out, Sansone says otherwise, and if Pat says it’s in … it’s in. You got that?

Winner: Pat, clearly

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Stage Banter

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Something was going on in Tweedy’s head that first night. Maybe he checked his phone prior to taking the stage and had seen something jarring about Führer Trump — really, when can you not? — or maybe it was just the first night jitters talking, but he was particularly focused on our nation at large Wednesday night. “If anyone voted for Trump and doesn’t want to hear me talk about him, remember you voted for a reality TV star, so I’ll say whatever the fuck I want,” he said to a bed of applause. Not once did he ever sound vitriolic; instead, he came off in what can best be described as exhaustedly hopeful. “We’ll take care of everybody. Everybody’s going to be alright. We’re going to persist, we’re going to resist.” Again, all to applause.

But there’s a trademark humor to Tweedy that’s achingly Midwestern and it’s all in the mild-mannered subtleties and the cozy ribbing that comes from having a long relationship with an enduring fanbase. After the band ran through “Jesus Etc.” on Wednesday, he jokingly prodded the crowd, saying: “For some reason, people think they know the words to this song. We’ll try it again tomorrow. Maybe we’ll print the words out.” That humor translated into the second night, when he dedicated Schmilco stunner “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” to “all of the globalists out there.” He even poked fun at their new album’s name, digressing on how “you’ve gotta work up as much disdain as possible” when you say it out loud.

In the end, Tweedy’s always Tweedy, but he’s on fire when something’s bugging him.

Winner: Night One

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Heavy Metal Drummer

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The same could be said about Mr. Kotche. The ever-reliable marksman behind the drums, who has yet to appear in a single gym ad despite looking like a hunky athlete by the end of every show, always gives it his all. He’s one of the most underrated drummers in the industry, and that’s what makes his style so alarming. When you look past the frontline and towards the back, there’s a whole James Cameron blockbuster going down, complete with T-800 exoskeletons and raucous explosions. Kotche turns even the most subdued Wilco song into an epic spectacle and part of the fun to any show is seeing how he’ll do it.

So, when we’re talking purely about Wilco’s most monstrous jams, we’re really talking about Kotche. Save for Cline, no other member generates the volume of noise he does, and this partly explains why spastic eruptions are one of the band’s many predilections. Although Thursday night saw a few underrated heavies in “At Least That’s What You Said”, “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”, and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”, none of them can out-sound Kotche’s Greatest Hits like “Via Chicago”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Art of Almost”, “Misunderstood”, and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, all of which were played Wednesday.

Winner: Night One

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Schmilco Will Love You, Baby

wilco schmilco Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago Winterlude

What’s always intriguing about Wilco’s live sets is seeing which new songs will stick. What’s going to be the next “Jesus Etc.” or “Art of Almost”? It’s a little too early to tell, even for material off 2015’s Star Wars, but based on how the Schmilco songs have been translated for the stage, one can make a few educated guesses worth noting.

“If I Ever Was a Child” is an obvious choice, a breezy selection and arguably the best song off the LP, and it’s one that captures the band in true harmony, which means it may be more likely to get tossed on future setlists. Then there’s “Someone to Lose”, a Big Star-esque strummer that thrives from Mikael Jorgensen’s instrumental sunlight.

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One track that hasn’t found its steadier footing yet is “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”, and probably because it’s a tough cookie to bite into early on. (Please forgive me for that stupid-as-hell metaphor.) Once it takes off, however, the groove is quite addicting, it’s just hard to get there when everyone starts off all at once and so, so fast. They’ll get it.

Odds are a more rocking track like “Locator” sticks around, if only because it’s easier to revisit without toning much down and works off a Beatles-like pace (think: “Come Together”) that gets the crowd going. It’s just a shame they didn’t play “Just Say Goodbye” because that’s likely going to sound absolutely gorgeous and could be a favorite.

Nevertheless, this round goes to the second night for song count alone.

Winner: Night Two

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The Crowd Explained

“I don’t think we’re going to play the rest of the shows this week,” Tweedy joked on Wednesday night. “We’re just going to cancel everything, we’re having too much fun.” An hour earlier, he pointed out to everyone that “this doesn’t feel like a Wednesday crowd,” and admitted that they were more of a “Thursday crowd.” But that was all for nought because come Thursday, the real crazies came out, turning the intimacy into warm chaos. People were jumping up and down, high-fiving one another, swigging beer left and right, and essentially turning the Chicago Theatre into a raucous bar.

This wasn’t lost on Tweedy, who observed the madness and concluded, “You guys are a Thursday night crowd. To be honest, I told the Wednesday crowd they were awesome and looked like a Thursday night crowd, but that was a lie.” As promised, the band tried out “Jesus, Etc.” again — sans any printed lyrics, of course — and Tweedy noted that everyone’s singing was a “marked improvement” over Wednesday night. Granted, anyone could chalk this all up to cheeky, tongue-in-cheek banter on Tweedy’s behalf, but one panorama shot of either night would have revealed two very different crowds.

Winner: Night Two

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Encore

In some respects, Thursday night felt like an upgrade. Tweedy not only got a better response out of “Jesus Etc.”, but he saw fans embrace his humorous story about South American crowds. “Every time I’d play a guitar riff, the whole crowd would sing it,” he explained on both nights. “I thought something was wrong with my guitar amp.” This idea fell wayside on Wednesday night, but on Thursday, the rowdy crowd totally bought it, turning a double-dipping performance of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” into a rallying cry, one that forced the band to return to their instruments and bring it all home for an epic second finish. Naturally, it helped that the band offered up a much more effective encore beforehand. Fueled by three Being There cuts — ahem, “Red Eyed and Blue”, “I Got You (At the End of the Century)”, and “Outta Site (Outta Mind)”, the whole gig turned into a goddamn Replacements show. At that point, night one was a distant, distant memory.

Winner: Night Two

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No. of Times They Played That Incredible Song “Muzzle of Bees”

cage Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago Winterlude

Zero. After 14 shows, this writer has still never heard his favorite song live. Womp, womp.

Loser: Michael Roffman

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Picking Up the Change

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Okay, so Thursday night was a clear improvement over the first night, but don’t get too hung up on that word “improvement.” Both performances were stellar, two-and-half-hour rock shows, the kind that very few outfits can commit to on any given night, let alone two consecutive nights, and let alone four nights in less than a week. Besides, it’s not always about the songs, or the number of albums they touch upon, or how hard Kotche hits the drums, or how many times Sansone switches instruments. What really matters, and what this ridiculously bloated excursion hopefully proves, is that the experience is always evolving. Because of this, Wilco is the ultimate FOMO-giving band, and no matter how many times you see them, you’ll keep finding things you wish you had seen. That’s why this writer will be sweating bullets these next two nights, refreshing the setlists again and again in the hopes they don’t play “Muzzle of Bees” without him.

That’s powerful stuff.

Overall Winner: Night Two

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Setlists

kaplan cos 2 22 wilco chicago 5 Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago WinterludeNight One:
Ashes of American Flags
If I Ever Was A Child
Cry All Day
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
Pickled Ginger
Misunderstood
Someone to Lose
Pot Kettle Black
Via Chicago
Bull Black Nova
Reservations
Impossible Germany
We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)
Box Full of Letters
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Hummingbird
The Late Greats
Encore #2:
Random Name Generator
Jesus, Etc.
Locator
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Encore #2:
California Stars

kaplan cos 2 22 wilco chicago 12 Two Nights with Wilco: A Completely Unnecessary Breakdown of their Chicago WinterludeNight Two:
Normal American Kids
If I Ever Was A Child
Cry All Day
Radio Cure
Company In My Back
The Joke Explained
Misunderstood
Someone to Lose
At Least That’s What You Said
Reservations
Impossible Germany
Either Way
We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)
Forget the Flowers
Jesus, Etc.
Locator
Dawned On Me
Theologians
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Hummingbird
The Late Greats
Encore #1:
War On War
Pickled Ginger
Red Eyed and Blue
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
Encore #2:
Spiders (Kidsmoke)

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