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Wilco Concert

February 18, 2008
I saw Wilco live at the Riviera two nights ago. The Riviera is a nice venue. I saw Rilo Kiley there a couple months ago. A friend and I stood outside in the cold from five thirty until seven when the doors opened, and up by the very front on the floor next to the stage until eight thirty when the band played. There was no opening act.
In a nutshell, this very well could have been the best concert I have been to. Neil Young may have been a religious experience, and Dream Theater had more energy, but I definitely had more fun with Wilco than anyone else. Although I would consider myself a fairly new Wilco fan, only having listened to them for a year or two, I would still say that I know them well enough to recognize a lot of their songs, and enjoy the stuff I don’t recognize. With that said, the setlist was pretty solid. The first ten songs or so I recognized immediately from the bands more popular albums, A Ghost Is Born, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Summerteeth. They got a lot of the crowd pleasers out of the way first, but they didn’t run out of steam. They should have, though, because they started to play the more obscure stuff near the middle of the show.
The deal with these Wilco shows in Chicago is that they are trying to play every song on each of their studio albums throughout the five nights. This does not mean they won’t play any repeats throughout the five nights. But it does mean that they have to dig back into the back catalogue, including the Mermaid Avenue albums, and play some of the really obscure stuff. They played many of Wilco’s most popular songs, especially in the first half. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Handshake Drugs, Hell Is Chrome, A Shot In The Arm, and Heavy Metal Drummer all made their appearances to booming crowd approval. In general, they spread out their setlist evenly between albums. The most attention was given to the bands double album Being There. And an unusual amount of material was played from their first album, the country styled AM. By the time they hit a lot of said obscure songs on Saturday, they had a counter weapon to keep everyone on their toes.
Andrew Bird.
That’s right, the whistler, fiddler, and folk singer closest to our heart showed up and played with Wilco for seven songs, starting with the crowd pleasing singalong Jesus Etc. His appearance was relaxed. He donned a stylish pink scarf. His presence was subtle, but ultimately appreciated, and he got a tremendous response from the audience despite how quiet and underspoken he was.
But in the grand scheme of things, Mr. Bird was peripheral (as much as we love him!). The core members of Wilco are as wonderful as ever. Jeff Tweedy has an unspoken bond with his Chicago audience that is clearly present, and his audience is completely vocal about their love for him. Although Tweedy is quiet and reserved on stage, he knows how to have fun and give the audience what they want. Upon straining some of his highest notes, he gives the audience a wink of recognition before his sharp ascent. Nels Cline is an amazing guitarist. His stage presence is perhaps the most felt out of the entire band. His towering figure spastically moves, sways, and convulses randomly as his fingers fly up and down his fretboard. His solos can be incendiary, but he has a certain control that is also appreciable. On many of the songs played a steel guitar on his lap with great restraint. Bassist John Stirrat and jack of all trades Pat Sansone are also particularly energetic on stage when they feel the need to be, and Mikael Jorgensen is the icing on the cake, the always present detailing that gives the live sound it’s density. But what pushes the band over the edge in their live performances is without a doubt drummer Glenn Kotche. By three songs in, he was sweating like a pig and slamming his kit as if it was the last chance he would ever get. His energy is always outward, and he makes the band’s live repetoire what it is. And there is nothing quite like seeing his cacophonous freakout during Via Chicago.

There is something to be said about watching a band play whose members would clearly rather be no where else in the world than where they are at that moment. This is the way that Wilco presented themselves on Saturday, and when a bands energy is that positive, and the audiences enthusiasm is equally as high, the energy bounces back and forth between both parties. Wilco were playing on a Saturday night in their hometown, so they were already enthusiastic about the performance, and even the more low key songs were greeted with enthusiasm from the band and audience alike. About midway through the show, a drunken idiot pushed past me in the middle of Heavy Metal Drummer, and proceeded to make his way even farther to the front of the crowd, at which point he was greeted with resistance from the fans in front of us. He was talked down by a big burly guy, who Jeff Tweedy eyed lightly throughout the song, smiling. Afterwards he complemented the big guy on how beautifully he handled the situation, at which point he and the drunken idiot were clearly buddies, playing it up. He said that we shouldn’t beat up the drunken idiots of the world, and that we should be their friends. It’s funny that even the drunken idiotic Wilco fans are nice enough.

The crowd was very nice, much nicer than the crowd that was there for Rilo Kiley. Wilco fans seem to be, for the most part, in their thirties or even forties, and really there weren’t any horrible people, except one guy behind me who was completely smashed and maybe high, who wouldn’t stop clapping his hands and hitting my hair. I can’t blame him though. It’s a big target, and I can imagine anyone who stands behind me in a concert would be pretty pissed off. But we met up with a friend there, and stood next to a nice knowledgeable couple and later on a cool guy from New York who I had a good conversation with.

What we came to the conclusion about is that Wilco is possibly the greatest American band active today. Their music feels genuinely American. They know how to add texture and a classical folk feel to their music through acoustic guitars and pianos, and yet they know how to tear through their music live and make their music more rocking and abrasive than one might expect. I don’t think I really knew how much I liked Wilco until I finally got ahold of the band’s live album, Kicking Television. While the songs do stand alone on their studio albums, it is really impossible to get an accurate picture of what the band are really like unless you hear, and ideally see, them live. Highly recommended.

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