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Postscript: Wilco's Chicago residency

February 21, 2008 |  2:40 pm


And so it ends: After five nights, and about 13 hours of music, Wilco's residency in Chicago came to a close Wednesday night. It did so with a wallop of feedback rather than a celebratory rock 'n' roll bang. Guitar notes howled like freezing winds off Lake Michigan, and violin strings were teased and left to sway like a creaky door in a blizzard.

"There's so much less to this than you think," were the last pre-encore lyrics sung by singer Jeff Tweedy, a humble, almost guilt-ridden bow out of five ambitious nights of music. At 30 or so songs per night, it was one of more than 150 songs Wilco sang over the past week in its hometown. It also completed the band's goal of performing all 81 songs from each of Wilco's six official studio albums.

Live, "Less Than You Think" proved no less self-indulgent as it does on record, a beautiful keyboard-driven lament for about two minutes. Then some agonizing, un-listenable noise for the next 12 minutes. But it was fascinating to watch guitarist Nels Cline file his guitar notes, and see Glenn Kotche lightly decorate each piece of his drum kit while bassist John Stirratt left his instrument to create a dooming bellow.

The message seemed clear. While Wilco may have gone into this residency with a chance to explore its past, it would leave it with a promise to be no less brave in the future. It would have been easy to end the night with concert staples such as "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "A Shot in the Arm," but even in a week meant to celebrate its back-catalog, Wilco would find a way to challenge and test its fans.

And anything less from this band of alt-country rockers-turned-pop-experimentalists-turned-soulful-explorers would have been a disappointment.

Earlier in the week, I reviewed the first two nights of Wilco's residency. For the final three, I put down the notepad (after all, I was watching the shows on vacation rather than work), and here are five final observations from this week-of-Wilco:

-- "Showbiz should be more honest:" Watching a band work through its catalog -- some songs of which it hasn't performed live in nearly 10 years -- is watching one unafraid to show its warts. But Wilco also isn't too self-important to laugh away its faults. When introducing "I Thought I Held You," from Wilco's 1995 debut "A.M.," Tweedy pleaded with the crowd to go to the restroom. Referring to the overly-earnest country song as a term that isn't fit to print here, Tweedy said, "I got to be honest with you, this song is [expletive]."

But when he finished, Tweedy noted that "showbiz should be more honest." Such openness came easy to Wilco over the five nights. On Monday, the group launched into "Kamera," a staple of its "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" days, full of keyboard loops and soaring guitars. But the version here was loose, and nearly fell apart, with Tweedy asking, "Was that my fault?" He then admitted he had forgotten how to play the tune.

-- John Stirratt is under-appreciated no more: The Wilco bassist, and sole original member alongside Tweedy, is sometimes overshadowed by the band's more flashy, relatively recent additions -- a guitar scorcher in Cline or a rhythmic whiz in Kotche. With all of Wilco's lineup shifts, it's easy to overlook Stirratt's understated bass lines, which are the melodic foundation in each of Wilco's six records.

The band's hometown crowd seemed hip to this, and turned Stirratt into a star Wednesday night. Stirratt took over the vocals on "A.M." cut "It's Just That Simple," the one non-Tweedy voiced song in the Wilco canon. Stirratt proved well-suited for the plaintive country plea, and it was the second time in five nights Stirratt was allowed to sing it.

The crowd cheered the first time it was played on Saturday, but went nuts on Wednesday, giving Stirratt an extended standing ovation. Tweedy embraced his bassist, and the front-man encouraged the crowd to keep cheering. Stirratt visibly struggled to hold back the smiles and play it cool.

It was a touching moment of the residency, and a welcomed one. With a revolving cast of musicians, Wilco has sometimes been wrongly categorized as a Tweedy solo project. But that's never really appeared to be the case. Wilco is more an ever-evolving band, as each Wilco album reflects the strengths and weaknesses of that particular lineup. But more important, each Wilco lineup has been more than capable, and its members are always given the opportunity to flex their muscle.

-- A look ahead: When Wilco's 2007 album "Sky Blue Sky" was released, it represented a move away from some of the electro-pop flirtations of "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," and offered a bit less of the prog-rock tones of "A Ghost is Born." With strands of country again popping up in Wilco's music, it was viewed as a bit of a return to Wilco's roots. But side-by-side with early albums such as 1995's "A.M." and 1996's "Being There," the songs were far more intricate and nuanced than anything Wilco pulled off a decade ago.

The "Being There" lineup with drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was apt at roughing-up-the-edges of a mid-tempo Southern rocker such as "Say You Miss Me," but the current Wilco incarnation slogged through it. The Wilco of 2008 was better at handling the "Being There" songs with more space to them, such as "Misunderstood" and "Sunken Treasure." The latter, in fact, received two slightly altered versions this week, and an eerily bare version of the song opened Wednesday's show.

Of the songs that were performed four or five nights, a number were from "Sky Blue Sky," including "Impossible Germany" and "Hate it Here." Both represent relatively new strains to Wilco's repertoire.

While "Hate it Here" is a fun if slight song on record, live it turns into a full crowd sing-along, and features some of Tweedy's strongest, most impassioned soul singer vocals to date. "Impossible Germany," meanwhile, represents Wilco as a three-headed guitar monster, with multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone joining Tweedy to offer counter-melodies to the solo sketches of Cline.

Wilco seems comfortable and taken with both, and the guitar assault of "Impossible Germany" and modern soul of "Hate it Here" would be welcome areas for the band to further explore.

-- More to come:
After completing its encore Wednesday night, the crowd was only willing to budge after Tweedy reassured its fans that it would be staging a winter residency in Chicago in 2009. "We'll do this again next year," Tweedy pleaded. Earlier, Tweedy promised that the band would further explore its B-sides and non-album cuts next time around.

For those in other cities, expect Wilco to trot out more and more of its older songs as it hits the road. The band is taking requests on its website, and spent Wednesday night playing what Tweedy said were the songs it had the most fun with over the residency. Hopefully that means much more of the mini-symphony of "Pieholden Suite," an absolute gem of a song from "Summerteeth." Other repeats Wednesday night included "Casino Queen," "War On War," "Box Full of Letters" and "Pot Kettle Black."

-- Wilco is a dude's band:
Even as the band's recent "Sky Blue Sky" has taken a turn toward soul romanticism, Wilco remains a band for the boys. Each night when the venue's doors were opened, the line to get in the Riviera was split down the sexes. Of the hundreds who lined up early, about two dozen were females. As the temperature dropped below 6 degrees Monday, and the female line dwindled to nil, one male fan asked, "You think I could pass for a woman?"

Photo: Wilco in Los Angeles, Richard Hartog /Los Angeles Times