Band Concert Review
Wilco: A Catalog Full of Gems and Rarities
Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL, USA, February 16, 2008
Even though I physically own every one of Wilcos albums I have had an arduous time over the last thirteen-years coming to terms with them. At Jeff Tweedys best, I believe he is a cathartic songwriter who often does his best to disavow his inner pop talent. He writes these songs that could potentially be power pop, but does his best to spin them on their heads. Plus, I must admit that living in Chicago has proven to be a disadvantage to warming up to them. Ive often found their music polarizing and the Chicago press continual praise hasnt helped. Ive often wondered if the elitist mentality of some of these writers and fans elevated the band to an undeserving level. However, at my core, I always admired the band because they defy expectations and are savvy with their business acumen. I often wonder why every act doesnt follow their lead? However, my watershed moment has come to pass. I had never seen Wilco live and figured if there was ever a time to let their music reveal itself to me, a five night stint at Chicagos Riviera Theatre would be the place and Im glad to say, my gut instinct was dead on.
What I witnessed was a band with an abundance of pop hooks, restraint and searing intensity who matched the best arena rock shows Ive ever seen while simultaneously yielding moments so intimate and reflective they could only happen in a club. As the lights dimmed, Jeff Tweedy strode on stage alone with an acoustic guitar in hand. As he began to strum Someone Elses Song, the other band members arrived one by one and subtly joined in before the ending which found a fully fleshed version. Hell is Chrome followed and the A Ghost Is Born track has never revealed itself to me until witnessing it live. I began fully comprehend and appreciate these salty tunes as the music lives and began to embed itself inside of me. This is the joy of a live concert, where a song that you never liked reveals itself to you in an entirely different manner. Ive never been a fan or Ghost but feel I may need to go back and rediscover it.
Jeff Tweedy is the artist who gets the lion share of admiration but on Handshake Drugs, guitarist Nels Cline stole the song with a trembling physical emancipation of musical soul. The multilayered instrumentation of the entire band jiggled and jangled like a beautiful woman who stopped traffic on a hot summer day as the song built until the droning wall of sound hit a crescendo. The whole song was a cinematic experience with the stellar lights accentuating the shadows of all six band members on the back wall with lighting on par with an arena and stadium act. Wilco songs are like puzzles; you build the framework and slowly fill in the missing pieces until its complete. While listening to Tweedy steer the band through I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a heart wrenching and emotive number, it really helped me understand Tweedys lyrical genius. If he wasnt making Wilco records, he could make a living and possibly more money writing songs for other people. Granted, they would be polished up to the point where he would disown them, but one can not deny the timeliness nature of the lyrics. Tweedy is a really a pop star who finds a way to defy the odds and morph songs like this into something so much more. These songs may start one way and as the song moves forward, it shows an entirely different light.
On the turbulent and truthful Via Chicago, the inexplicable Glenn Kotche came alive and unleashed his inner Keith Moon. Throughout the entire evening, he exuberantly performed with precision, unleashing a cinematic inferno that walked a thin line between bombast and refinement while keeping a straight face the entire time. A Shot in the Arm did just that as it jolted the crowd and lifted everyone to a more sublime mindset. Cline once again unleashed his inner rock God and at one point during the song I felt as if someone had to throw a bucket of cold water on me because the hurts-so-good feeling of the theater was contagious and almost too good to believe.
The simplicity of the elegantly intrinsic pop ditties Muzzle of Bees, When You Wake Up Feeling Old, Its Just That Simple and Hotel Arizona ached with nostalgia highlighted by spacious and ethereal melodies. However, it was a true blast from the past, Too Far Apart, which brought the evening into focus. It was during this number that the awesomeness of this residency came to light. Bands are often too scared and afraid to take chances and revisit their early material because they feel they have moved on from it. What most artists dont realize is that like life, we have to embrace our past, cherish it and learn from it before moving forward. What made this song so sinuous were the otherworldly smiles on all six bands members faces. The feeling within the 1,300 capacity club was beyond incendiary at this moment. I even found myself, not a huge fan, transfixed by the performance.
The wonderfully poetic and visceral lyrics cut right through in the intimate atmosphere. Forget The Flowers, Dash 7 and Im The Man Who Loves You were delivered with crafty strumming, sweet fiddles and rigorous slide guitars that demanded the crowd to reach for the skies during several goose bump moments. When the band began Christ For President the crowd went berserk, even though I was largely unfamiliar with the song. This is what I love about snug and daring shows like these when bands dig deep into their catalogs and casual fans like me have defining moments. Going in I would have rather have seen Im Always In Love, but instead I walked away knowing I had seen something that I needed to hear again.
Heavy Metal Drummer soared like a rocket in the sky and the crowd fueled its take-off. Theres a great bit of irony here as the band sung about a genre of music that is largely vilified yet it didnt stop the crowd for making this the evenings most well received song. At its core, music is all about emotion and sometimes it takes a clichéd lyric to connect us. Then there are times where a band sings about artists who make livings off clichéd lyrics. Both experiences are equally divergent and luminous proving that rock n roll comes in many faces and forms. The ending of the track was utterly fantastic providing a physically releasing moment where the crowd collectively radiated.
Post-intermission the band turned into the greatest rock band on the planet as they channeled the Faces and Stones. One can not judge a bands power, importance or relevancy by record sales or concert receipts. However, after this performance in the ice tundra that has been Chicago over the last few months, there was no doubt in my mind that Wilco by a knock-out qualified for a championship fight for the heavyweight rock band of the world. As 1,300 hands boisterously thunder clapped during Monday, drummer Glenn Kotche hyperactively shows off his virtuoso bare-knuckle awesomeness proving he is indeed the MVP of Wilco. Casino Queen and Dreamer In My Dreams featured a ginormous wall of sound that was fierce, storming and dazzling as the cumulative force of all six members pummeling their instruments was the equivalent of seeing a the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. If that wasnt enough, the finale was the luminous The Lonely 1, a sedate homage to fanaticism that wields a wide range of emotions with Tweedy front and center on stage. His vocal delivery yielded an aching and unabashed vulnerability. For the first time in my life, I knew I could now call myself a fan. I could see inside his head and the picturesque storytelling lyric sealed the deal for me. The entire evening up to this point found Tweedy steadfast and confident, but here he opens the curtains and lets us inside. I could think of no better way to end the evening.
The band said their goodnights and left the stage at 11:05 PM. However, the crowd was not ready to let go just yet. The crowds aggressive side crushed my eardrums as the fanatical reaction is something Ive only witnessed a handful of times before in the hundreds of concerts Ive attended. Not one person left the building and even though the lights were turned on, music could be heard on the speakers, a crew was on stage breaking the set down going so far as to lift the curtain exposing the cases for all of their equipment. Despite all of this, not a soul left and at 11:10, the howls were rewarded as the band surged back on stage. This is only the third time in my life where the roars of the crowd have willed a band back on stage for an extended encore; the other two artists being Bon Jovi and Will Hoge. Tweedy is at a loss for words as hes clearly thematically worked out set lists for all five nights and didnt want to throw the balance off, so they surged into Fridays opening number, ELT. What impressed me so profoundly with Wilco is their willingness to take chances and never rest on their laurels. All they had to do was a simple cover tune and the crowd would have walked away ecstatic, but they delved deeper pulling Hoodoo Voodoo from Mermaid Avenue, their collaboration with Billy Bragg. Even though there was a false start, the band quickly found their groove with dueling guitar solos that morphed into a duel to the death before the music descended into a moment of resurrecting ecstasy.
A little before 11:30, the band finally retreated from the stage and for good this time, however, not before leaving an indelible impression on the sold-out crowd, many of whom have flown in from all over the world to catch these series of shows. Most would find traveling for a handful of concerts to be foolish, but its anything but. These five shows, in Wilcos hometown no less, are ones for the ages. More importantly, the band isnt falling into the trap that hounds arena and stadium acts. They have laid a blueprint to not just perform every single song from their catalog over five nights, but theyre doing it with a wide array of emotions that are proving to be intransient. If this is a chore for them, its not showing, they are a band who believes in their albums and songs and at this moment in time are reclaiming them not just for themselves, but so that people like me could see them soar as well. The pop framework of their earlier material contrasts rather stunningly against their more endearing work, however, it helps bridge these songs as catalysts for one another where they may reveal a new color or transform themselves in ways no one could have ever imagined, including the band.
Wilco are essentially an arena rock band who defies the odds by playing clubs and theaters. There was lots of bombast and glory here for the band to take in (notably on Walken), highlighted by an orchestra of assaulting guitars. One of the most ironic items about Wilco is that if they played it straight they could be one of the biggest arena bands in the land. Instead, theyve gone down the cult road and as a result, theyre the second biggest cult band in the world (with Radiohead being the first). As the delirious crowd vibrancy could be felt during Red-Eyed and Blue, I found myself praying that these shows are being preserved for posterity and will find its way onto some kind of physical or digital box set. Many may wonder why Wilco hasnt taken that next step and graduate to arenas. Im fully confident it will happen one of these days, but when and where doesnt matter. What does matter is that Wilco has grand ambitions for themselves and their music as long as it is on their own terms. Whether they play to 1,300 or 13,000 is irrelevant, whats important is that Wilco continues to grow and push the envelope in ways few have done before. I only wish every band was as ambitious and truthful as Wilco. Their pained pop crescendos and emotive lyrics are cemented in the DNA of their fanatical fan base and to see the band embrace their fans, their hometown and their catalog is beyond inspiring, its divine.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.