Monday, February 18, 2008

Wilco--Riviera Theater, Chicago, Illinois (Day 1)

(In honor of Wilco's five day residency at the Riviera, NQL decided to send a self-confessed Tweedy Bird to report on the first night of action for a special guest post. Enjoy.)

February is a rough month for Chicago. The holidays are long gone, leaving us with extra poundage and no motivation to do anything about it. The cold, dreary weather lingers on for months, creeping through our windows and burying our cars. My co-pay for Prozac this month got traded in for one night’s ticket to the Riviera Theater in Chicago’s historic Uptown neighborhood for the first night of Wilco’s Winter Residency. For the depressed, the jilted lover or Wilco nutcases like me the timing could not have been better. This night was the first of a veritable Wilco smorgasbord, where the band promised to play over the course of five nights every song officially recorded. According to, this show was considered an “Evening with Wilco.” Apparently this meant there was no opening act. Unabashedly my plan all along was to arrive early and claim my piece of land front and center. Clues to suggest this would not be the case:

(1) The shows sold out online within seconds. To my dismay I was not able to land tickets to all the shows.

(2) The line of likeminded Wilco fans wrapped around the block all the way to the corner of Magnolia and Lawrence waiting to get in.

Fortunately the line moved quickly and I was inside the doors in a short time, but too late, sadly, for my frost-bitten fingers. Within minutes my mottled, grey hands pinked to life by gripping a $7 Heineken and I decided to take no prisoners as I made my way to the front of the stage floor. I quickly learned that you have to prove your Wilco fanaticism in this city. I managed to slither my way to within about fifteen feet of the stage, in a comfortable, surprisingly spacious spot. Spacious, I realized, because it was directly behind the Tallest Man on Earth.

What song will they open with? For a band whose career spans six albums, side projects, and numerous unofficial records over thirteen years, the possibilities were limitless. There are so many hits, so many potential ass-kickers. There was no doubt they had the repertoire to sustain a five-night marathon. But the quality of the shows, like a well-crafted mix tape, would depend heavily on the order in which they play the songs. I asked a man standing next to me what he thought they would open with. In striking up conversation with this complete stranger, he revealed to me that he got a five-day pass that night on craigslist for face-value. Hate is not a strong enough word. My mind was so clouded with anger over this that I can’t even remember his pick for the opener. My speculation was soon put to rest as Wilco took stage, understated frontman Jeff Tweedy festive as ever with his unintentionally unkempt hair and nondescript denim shirt. They chose to open Summerteeth-style with “Every Little Thing” followed by “Shot in the Arm.” There’s nothing better to get heads bobbing than a line like Ashtray says/you were up all night. They went on to play two hits from Sky Blue Sky, then two from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, including one of my personal faves, “Pot Kettle Black.” A burgeoning pattern, perhaps? Wrong. After a few selections, Tweedy spoke and enticed us with the knowledge that in addition to playing their officially recorded music, they would also play from Mermaid Avenue and other unreleased songs. Next came a rare lyrical gem, “When the Roses Bloom Again” from the Chelsea Walls Soundtrack.

One by one, Wilco bulldozed through fantastic hit after hit. See the set list here. They skipped around from one album to the next, leaving me salivating in anticipation for what they would play next. Some highlights included “Why Would You Wanna Live,” “At Least That’s What You Said,” and “Misunderstood.” In his most delicate moment of the night, Tweedy sang Music was my savior/I was maimed by rock and roll/I was tamed by rock and roll in a rarely performed version of “Sunken Treasure.” With those lyrics he probably melted even the iciest of hearts all across the Riv. (Editors Note: This has fulfilled our quota for the use of phrase "the Riv" for the year. We'll be sticking with "the Riviera" from here on out. Thanks.) By no small coincidence a few unsuspecting men probably got lucky that night as well. Before going to intermission they played what I’m sure is a band favorite, “Kidsmoke,” a song that gives them license to just flat rock out.

I find crowd behavior at shows interesting. Wilco’s alt-country-turned-daddy-rock appeal has always lent itself to a tame overeducated, underpaid following. Fans seem to go for a sincere appreciation for the music, have respect for personal space even when packed like sardines, and thankfully they use Dial. For the most part this was no different from other Wilco shows I’ve attended. As always, crazed fans begged for songs, and one dude next to me between every flipping song yelled out “CARS CAN’T ESCAPE!!!” This kid was that guy, with a flat-brimmed baseball cap, skillfully angled to the side, three sheets to the wind and checking his cell phone for txt msgs every minute. While “Cars Can’t Escape” is definitely one of my top 100 Wilco songs, I sort of began to hope that they would not play it. To my delight, the local crowd began self-policing, and Tallest Man on Earth calmly told him to shut it because chances were good over the next five nights that they would play it. The kid put a sock in it. Soon after Tallest Man on Earth noticed that I was behind him and offered to let me stand in front of him for better viewing. There is justice in this world! Unfortunately, though I never thought I would say it like this, they did play “Cars Can’t Escape.” It was only to get this guy to shut up or sheer coincidence, not because the band wanted to honor a crappy fan’s annoyingly excellent request. I will believe it no other way.

Crowd antics aside, this was a highly enjoyable show. Wilco has gained a reputation for being a great live band, perhaps one of the best right now. Their shows are great and their heads have managed to stay squarely between their shoulders. For better or worse the band has been in constant evolution, yet they never seemed as comfortable in their own skin as they do now. Their sound is polished, no more evident by the growing presence of Nels Cline whose brilliance is featured in songs like “Impossible Germany.” The love affair between Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche is as uncut and wildly passionate as Kotche’s hair. The faithful John Stirratt remains steadfast on stage to Tweedy’s left. This night featured the best of the best, mixing their current pared-down, simplified sound with some older favorites and lesser known gems.

Drunk on Wilco and dizzied by their set list it was sobering to re-enter the frigid Chicago night. Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? I left the show sated but longing for more. Luckily, I have Tuesday and Wednesday to continue this drug holiday (Joining me will be my sister, a fellow Tweedy Bird, who has made pilgrimage from Germany to attend). I don’t profess to have any sort of fair and balanced reporting of this show because I’m just a fan. Perhaps I should have made a disclaimer at the beginning to divert anyone expecting a real piece of journalism. That said I will feel free to say that this was the best Wilco show I have ever seen. I must be high.

--Audrey Wen

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