Few bands in the history of rock music have ingrained themselves so finely into the DNA of their hometown as Wilco has. When I think of bands that have become super famous, I don’t usually link them immediately with a place. When somebody says “Wilco,” Chicago is the first thing that pops into my head.
So when it was announced a while back that the band would be playing a week long residency here, I was elated like many of you. The band would start big, playing the fairly new Lyric Opera House and then move to smaller and smaller venues each night, ending with a fundraiser at Lincoln Hall. The plan was genius, and I was completely ready to waste a paycheck to get tickets to every show.
There were a couple hiccups along the way. I don’t think Front Gate Tickets was prepared for the onslaught of fans, jonesing for their hit of Wilco they’ve been shaking without for two years. We got lucky and ended up getting two tickets. We missed out on The Vic show, and I decided that even if I could afford it, I hate the Riviera so much that I wouldn’t waste the money (although, we were shown great kindness by Wilco’s press person and allowed a photo pass for the show, so Kari went and shot all these amazing photos you’re seeing).
The show we really wanted to get tickets to was at Metro. I’m generally a big fan of Metro’s. There have been a couple instances where the sound was a bit shoddy, but seeing a band like Wilco, who has held the top spot in my heart as far as working bands for the last decade or so, I was willing to risk it. And somehow Kari pulled it off. Two tickets. Done.
Now, I have a habit that a lot of people tend to have. When I look back at a show that I went to, it’s almost always an amazing experience. My rose-colored glasses turn very run-of-the-mill things into the greatest thing ever. So, when I reflect on past Wilco shows in anticipation, I think “There’s no way they’re as good live as I think they are.” And feeling completely sure that this was fact, I went into the Civic Opera House prepared to not be blown away.
Do you know what happens when you decide that you’re not going to be blown away at a Wilco show? They blow you away anyway. It took all of two or three songs before I was reminded that Wilco is the best live band in the world. By the time they finished playing “Art Of Almost” I had completely forgotten anything other than Wilco (there are other bands? Why?)
The highlight of the night, and I would argue the entire residency, came during the second encore Monday night. After playing a fine but altogether missable version of “Cruel To Be Kind” with Nick Lowe, Jeff brought out Mavis Staples. They played a version of “You Are Not Alone” that brought the house down. If you haven’t heard Mavis’ last record, which Jeff produced, you need to get it right now.
Then they brought Lowe back out, and the band played the best versions of “The Weight” I’ve seen since my The Last Waltz bluray. It seemed like Nick Lowe didn’t really know the words to his part, but whatever. It’s only one of the most covered songs in history. Maybe it’s not so ubiquitous in the UK.
Here’s Wilco’s setlist from the Lyric Opera House:
One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend), Poor Places, Art of Almost, I Might, Misunderstood, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, One Wing, Rising Red Lung, Impossible Germany, Far, Far Away, What Light, Born Alone, Jesus, Etc., Capitol City, War on War, Box Full of Letters, Pot Kettle Black, Dawned on Me, Shot in the Arm
Whole Love, Heavy Metal Drummer, Candyfloss, I’m the Man Who Loves You, Outta Mind (Outta Sight)
Cruel To Be Kind, You Are Not Alone, The Weight
So now I’ve got all this Wilco love going on, but I’m not seeing them again til Friday! I passed the week by listening to their albums from AM to The Whole Love straight through on my iPod.
Friday was an interesting gig. I had heard that people lined up at Riviera at 9am to get good spots, so I was sure that getting there after 6 would be nothing but trouble. As it turns out, we had time to go out to dinner and everything. Got there around 715 and still got fairly close on the right side. Away from Nels, but not the worst thing in the world. The openers were Paulina Hollers. I’d never heard of this band before. They play Appalachian fiddle music, which was fine by me. They were pretty good, and I would recommend checking them out at some point.
Wilco came out after an introduction by a WXRT DJ who let us know that this was the first time The band was playing Metro as a whole. Amazing. They opened with “Sunken Treasure,” and I think Wilco may be the only band who can open damn near every show with a slow song and have the crowd beg for more. They moved into “Wishful Thinking” and then lit up the place with “Art Of Almost.” For me, this is where the show really took off and the band could show off their chops a bit.
While we’re on the subject of chops, can I talk about Nels Cline for a minute? Has this guy ever been checked by NASA, because I’m not all that sure he’s human. He certainly doesn’t play guitar like any earthling I’ve ever heard. He seems to mind meld with the instrument until they are one. The physical abuse he puts on the guitar and himself is incredible. His talent is endless, and I’m surprised no one has done a “Clapton Is God” type tribute to the man(?) yet. I could spend a whole week just watching Nels play and mess with his pedals and different gadgets and I don’t think I would ever get bored. Hell, I may not even blink for fear of missing something amazing. I literally don’t have words to describe how awesome Nels Cline is. Hearing it on the records is nowhere near the awe-inspiring sight of him crushing a guitar during a solo.
One of the things Wilco has done so well over the years is create stelists that don’t just repeat night after night. Never was that more true than this week, when the band opted to play a lot of deep cuts, or “nuggets,” as Tweedy referred to them. There were a couple repeats, but nothing to complain about. Obviously they played a bunch of stuff from the new album, but they also played tracks from every other album. My favorite older songs that they played were “Too Far Apart,” “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed,” and “Kingpin.” The version of “Kingpin” might have been my favorite part of the evening. The audience participation on the “WHOO” was a lot of fun, and Tweedy’s banter with the guy in the front was pretty funny: Tweedy said, “You guys are doing great, but I think you can do a little better.” And the guy up front said “Bullshit!” Then Tweedy goes, “Bullshit? Fine. You don’t sing this time. I bet we’ll sound even better without you.” Cracked me up anyway.
This show happened to fall on Tweedy’s son’s birthday. He was seated up in the balcony in a whole section with friends and family. We were asked to sing him “Happy Birthday,” which was nice. A little bit later Jeff announced that for his birthday, the band had bought the first chord to “A Hard Day’s Night.” Then the band attempted to play that chord five or six times. I’m not sure they ever got it right. Pat Sansone seemed convinced that they did.
You know you’re seeing a great band when you can look at any member doing their thing and be completely entranced by them. Whether you’re watching Nels morph into his true, other-wolrdly self, or John Stirratt rocking the bass with passion and joy, you always get the feeling that this is absolutely the best it could possibly get. When Jeff is belting out one of those high screams like on “I’m Always In Love,” or singing something more elegant like “How To Fight Loneliness,” you can feel every beat and it makes everyone in the audience disappear, so you feel like the band is playing just for you.
Here’s Wilco’s setlist from Metro:
Sunken Treasure, Wishful Thinking, Art of Almost, I Might, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, One Wing, Company in My Back, Ashes of American Flags, Shouldn’t Be Ashamed, Either Way, Born Alone, Capitol City, War on War, How to Fight Loneliness, Too Far Apart, Red-Eyed and Blue, I Got You (At the End of the Century), Dawned on Me, I’m Always in Love, Hummingbird
Whole Love, Heavy Metal Drummer, Box Full of Letters, ELT, Standing O, Kingpin, A Shot in the Arm.
Dreamer in My Dreams
It’s easy to tell that I enjoyed these shows. It’s unfortunate that we had to wait over two years to get a full Wilco show back in Chicago, but it was definitely worth the wait. Hopefully it won’t be quite so long next time.
To check out more photos from the show, check out our album on Facebook!