Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wilco--The Pabst Theater, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Two nights ago (I'm admittedly under-motivated), Wilco kicked off their string of spring and summer tour dates with the first of two shows at the Pabst Theater in my home city of Milwaukee. It was their first show as a band of 2009.

And, despite frontman Jeff Tweedy admitting they had “spent a lot of time not practicing,” in the weeks leading up to the show, I don't believe there could have been a single person in the audience that left without loving Wilco at least a little bit more.

After a burrito and a chilly spring bike ride to the downtown venue, I settled in to my plush seat within a few songs of the start of the opening band, A Hawk and a Hacksaw. If you are unfamiliar (I was), the band is fronted by Neutral Milk Hotel's former drummer Jeremy Barnes, and has previously toured with Beirut and Olivia Tremor Control. From what I can gather, the group's lineup varies, but consistently features Barnes and a female violinist.

On this particular Tuesday night four people took the stage. Barnes stood at the far left, playing his accordion, using some kind of small, extremely narrow kick drum with tambourines attached to the top for percussion, singing for one or two songs, and talking to the crowd when appropriate. On stage in a straight line next to him stood the violinist, a trumpet player, and a baritone player.

Their songs were interesting and arguably unconventional, though they clearly channel styles that are hundreds of years old. I found them to be somewhat reminiscent of the Decemberists and Milwaukee favorite the Scarring Party. Something tells me they were not quite what most of the crowd was expecting.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed their sound, especially when coupled with the classically beautiful atmosphere of the Pabst. Barnes, like most performers I've seen at the Pabst, took a moment to declare his admiration for the theater, but received some negative feedback in the form of boos when he chose to state his opinion regarding the low quality of the beer.

If you've never been to the Pabst Theater, I highly recommend seeing a show there if you ever get the chance. It's a favorite venue of most Milwaukeeans, and the Pabst Theater Group (which operates two other venues) consistently does a good job bringing worthwhile shows to town. The Pabst was rebuilt after a fire in the 1890s, reopening 1895. It is a Wisconsin state historical site and national historical landmark. It was built in the style of a German opera house and features two large balconies above the main floor, gold painted molding, and a two ton crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Not only is the theater gorgeous, but its acoustics are better than most.

Tickets to both nights of the show sold out in a flash. I bought my ticket within minutes of the start of the pre-sale, and still wound up all the way to the left side of the stage in row Q. Presumably, everybody in the audience really wanted to be there. By the performance they gave, I believe Wilco did, too.

When Wilco finally took the stage, they went almost immediately into “Wilco the Song.” It took them a few songs to warm up to the excited, confident, well-woven way they would play most of their set, and this portion of the show felt to me like I was on an awkward first date with Wilco and the entire audience—nervous, not sure quite what to expect, but hoping for something great.

It was already during this first song that I discovered that the man standing next to me apparently believed himself to be Jeff Tweedy. I opted not to drink at Wilco (despite a 16 oz. Pabst costing a mere $3-ha, Alex), and my sobriety proved it difficult for me to ignore this man's awful and mostly inappropriate singing.

That aside, it wasn't long before I realized I was going to get more than I expected. During the second song, “Hummingbird,” Jeff Tweedy treated us to a little running man. After the third song, “At Least That's What You Said,” I began to notice how almost all members of the band were frequently changing instruments. And, during the fourth song, “Muzzle of Bees,” I noticed how their transitions between parts of songs left me wonderfully stricken.

I also noticed that just a few songs in, Wilco was rocking songs like most bands only rock their last of the night.

The band played a trio of songs off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot before Jeff Tweedy finally addressed the audience and delighted us all with his unassuming and amusing conversation. He had the privilege of throwing the first pitch at the Milwaukee Brewers' game the night before, and two of the band members ran in the sausage race that takes place on field during the seventh inning stretch at all Brewers' home games. Later in the night, Tweedy noted that his clothes smelled something like “mostaccioli schnapps” from the night before, and that he “didn't think it was fair that the chorizo had to run with a sombrero on.”

Tweedy also talked a little bit about the band's upcoming album, informing us that it was as yet unnamed, but they were leaning toward Hemispheres. He asked if anyone wanted to appear on the cover of the new album naked, because “none of us will do it”. He was kidding, of course, but he later invited the audience to line up outside the theater before the next day's show for pictures that will appear in the liner for the upcoming album.

After that it was right back to the rocking. Despite being somewhat desensitized to “Jesus, Etc.” because I've listened to it about a thousand times, I had goosebumps throughout it. Crowd favorite, “Handshake Drugs,” and one of my favorites, “A Shot in the Arm,” ended the official set.

But, obviously, we hungry Wilco fans were not letting them off that easily. When the band came back for their first of two encores, Jeff Tweedy was sporting a Brewers hat that incited the Chicagoans (there were many) in the audience to boo. To this, Tweedy pleaded, “Can't we all just get along?

The first encore was five songs, including, to my delight, “Theologians,” and “Heavy Metal Drummer.” I was impressed by the energy and skill that had gone into each and every song up to this point and the quality encore the band gave.

After a five song encore, I doubted there would be a second. But the audience spoke, and after quite a few minutes of energetic cheering and clapping, the band reappeared for a four-song second encore.

By the end of this encore, the band and audience both seemed to be in a state of satisfied exhaustion. The night ended with a lengthy and crowd-involved performance of “Kingpin,” where Tweedy subbed “Wisconsin” for “Pekin.”

By the end of the show I was in need of a smoke, so I quickly shuffled out the emergency exit that an usher had opened on the side of the theater. I stood on the sidewalk, relatively alone, checking my voicemail and enjoying my cigarette before starting the long bike ride home. It was during this time that I got to see Jeff Tweedy run from another exit of the theater to his tour bus, which was parked right in front of me.

After Tuesday night's show, I really wished I had bought a ticket for Wednesday night.

--Jackelyn C. Wicklund

1 comment:

Alex said...

$3 beers. I really miss the midwest.

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