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Wilco bares all in Chicago

February 18, 2008 |  2:38 pm


What: Chicago rock band Wilco pledged to perform its entire recorded catalog over five shows in six nights in its hometown.

Importance: Over the course of its six studio albums, Wilco has proved to be restlessly adventurous, its multiple lineup shifts resulting in an endlessly evolving band that challenges itself, and its audience, with each release. From the wide-eyed Americana of "A.M." to the electronic pop deconstructions of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" to the more subdued, almost soulful melodies of its most recent "Sky Blue Sky," Wilco has balanced experimentation and songcraft. The lyrics of the band's center and guiding force, the slightly scraggly-voiced Jeff Tweedy, possess a bit of nostalgic romanticism, characters who, to borrow a line from Wilco's "Sunken Treasure," appear just "outta tune" in their ability to connect with love, rock 'n' roll and culture.

Wilco's Chicago residency is a showcase for its diverse catalog, and a celebration of its most consistent lineup to date. Or perhaps the sets, which on its first two nights stretched past 2 1/2 hours and included an intermission, would represent Wilco segueing into a more comfortable phase of its career, one marked by marathon shows that look backward rather than ask the audience to go somewhere new. This didn't appear lost on Tweedy, who noted that the nightly intermissions were a move more "like the [Grateful] Dead."

Verdict: What Wilco set out to do this week in Chicago was an ambitious task. Rather than play each of its albums in sequence, the band crafted five unique set lists designed to showcase its still evolving dexterity. Instead of a wistful jaunt through Wilco past, Wilco has changed its sound, and its lineup, with such frequency that the Wilco of 2008 represents a vastly different band than the Wilco of 1996.

Only two constants remain: Tweedy and the melodic bass lines of John Stirratt. This Wilco lineup is its strongest, and most fluid, with multi-instrumentalists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen providing a rich set of textures to each song, and a guitar shredder in Nels Cline fitting solos and atmospheres around Wilco's melodic experimentation in a way that never crowds the songs. Drummer Glenn Kotche glides the band from a ramshackle country-meets-Rolling Stones hootenanny like "Dreamer in My Dreams" to a cut-up of noise and sounds like "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."

Indeed, it's astonishing to see the amount of growth and evolution the band has covered in just over a decade. It's hard to imagine the alt-country Wilco of 1996 tackling the dancey, electronic groove of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," from Wilco's 2004 album "A Ghost is Born." Or then dialing it all down for the easy-going soul of "Hate It Here," from Wilco's latest, "Sky Blue Sky." Fans who have stuck with Wilco since Day One were rewarded with one of the most ardently adventurous bands around, and they showed their enthusiasm by turning songs such as "Airline to Heaven," "Jesus, Etc." and "Hummingbird" into full-on crowd sing-alongs.

One of the highlights on Friday night was "Candyfloss," a jaunty, keyboard-driven cut from "Summerteeth," which, if not a rarity, is far from a staple in Wilco's set lists. It's a dashing little number, with its verses ebulliently skipping around the sugary keys.

"I'm a boy that looks excited," Tweedy sings to open the song, and the music brings to life that kind of childlike wonder. As has Wilco's career. Wilco's residency at the Riviera in Chicago was a look at an American band worth celebrating, one that's constantly evolving, and fearlessly jumping through styles.

Surprises: Wilco has never been a band to get comfortable in its set lists, and Wilco didn't use the first two nights of its Chicago residency to just run down its albums. The band gave "Summerteeth's" opener "Can't Stand It" a reworking Friday night, dressing it up with a three-piece horn section to puncture the melodic high points, and brought it to a close with a brief, almost gospel-like coda on the keys from Sansone. Friday also saw Wilco perform the beautifully textured "Cars Can't Escape," with Jorgensen crafting a colorful array of psychedelic sounds, and a punky run-through on "Outta mind (outta sight)," with Cline's spry electric guitar leading the way.

Saturday saw Wilco get a bit more adventurous, and dive into a higher-octane set. Bassist Stirratt got to shine on the vocals with country lament "It's Just That Simple," and another "A.M." cut, the nearly forgotten "Dash 7," was resurrected with a stark, spooky interpretation with minimal guitar atmospheres. Earlier, "Being There's" "Hotel Arizona" was given a breezy run-through, its gliding guitars and harmonies making it sound like a long lost classic rock song.

After the intermission on Saturday, it was nearly all rock, opening with a garagey take on "The Late Greats," with Tweedy, Cline and Sansone providing a three-guitar assault. Chicago indie fave Andrew Bird joined for a few songs Saturday, gracing "Jesus, Etc." with some elegant fiddle work, and whistling through "Red-Eyed and Blue." The latter led into "I Got You (At the End of the Century)," and the three guitars elevated the song to arena-worthy status.

Pop nugget "A Magazine Called Sunset" was carried by Cline's jangle and some shape-shifting keys from Jorgensen, a delightful calm before Wilco got blissfully reckless Saturday night. Kotche flayed away like Cheap Trick's Bun. E. Carlos on "Monday," with Cline providing a perfectly scorching guitar solo. Cline was also there to slice his way through "Kingpin," his descending guitar notes echoing Tweedy's call-and-response verses with the crowd.

One would be remiss not to mention the way Tweedy and Cline are able to speak to each other via their guitars. "Impossible Germany" grows from a nice little ditty to a three-guitar breakdown, with Sansone and Tweedy providing counter-melodies for Cline to dance around. Likewise, "At Least That's What You Said" splits into a cathartic guitar showdown, in which Cline and Tweedy team up, only to then tear each other's solos apart. And there was Cline again, on the elegant build of "Ashes of American Flags," adding an awe-stunning guitar crescendo to close a meditative look at America with a grand finale splash. 

Mild disappointment: Heading into the residency, fans expected Wilco to perform every recorded song, including those on the two "Mermaid Avenue" albums, which saw Wilco and Billy Bragg providing music to Woody Guthrie lyrics, as well as every B-side and compilation cut. Many were under the impression that there would be few, if any, repeats in the sets from night to night. This was clear when Wilco launched into "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" on Saturday, and a few fans started yelling that the band had already played the song the night before.

All told, the band repeated about 10 songs from Friday to Saturday, with each night's set list pushing 30 songs. Tweedy clarified the mission: every song on Wilco's six proper albums, with some oddities and rarities thrown in. "It's not like there aren't going to be some repeats," Tweedy said. "We're still putting on a show."

Comic relief: Tweedy and the band were in high spirits both nights, but the singer drew a laugh on Friday during twangy rocker "Too Far Apart." At the song's midpoint, Tweedy called the music to a halt, and ran through the chorus with a dramatically strained falsetto. "This is my 'American Idol' audition," he joked.

Comic relief, Part II: When Tweedy brought up the Feb. 10 Grammy Awards, for which Wilco lost best rock album to the Foo Fighters, the crowed booed. Tweedy shared that the Foo Fighters are known as the "Pooh Fighters" around the Tweedy household, a nickname given to the band by his 8-year-old son.

And that's a wrap ... or is it? On Saturday's show, the band finished its set, said goodnight, and on come the venue's lights and exit music. The set had run long, and it appeared there wouldn't be an encore once stage hands began packing up equipment. But Wilco members are treated like kings in Chicago, and more than five minutes later, most of those in attendance had refused to budge. Wilco suddenly returned to power through "ELT" and a joyously ramshackle version of "Mermaid Avenue's" "Hoodoo Voodoo."

Non-music highlight: A half-hour before doors opened for Friday's show, the line to get in the Riviera was hundreds deep, stretching a block and a half down sidewalks partially blocked by snow mounds. With temperatures said to be falling below 20 degrees, and traffic slowing to a crawl, a member of the Chicago Police Department drove past the crowd to resounding cheers. The officer had Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" blasting from his squad car's intercom. Only in Chicago.

Non-music lowlight turned highlight: While it may have been freezing outside the venue, inside, the 2,300 or so Wilco fans were packed in tight, resulting in a sweaty, almost unbearably hot room. When tension + alcohol resulted in a scuffle between two fans in the back, fans were forced to break up an impending fight. To instantly lighten the mood, one onlooker mused: "It just wouldn't be Wilco without some punches thrown."

And why there's only one lame picture of the outside sign: Those taking pictures were escorted outside each night after three songs, and not allowed back in the venue until ridding themselves of their camera. Fearing I wouldn't get back in, I opted not to make use of the photo pass.