When I first visited Chicago, it was right around the time Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out. I remember seeing the Marina Towers depicted on Yankee’s cover in person and associating it with the band. It symbolized what it meant to be a Chicagoan. When I finally moved to Chicago two years later, the first concert I went to in town was Animal Collective. Jeff Tweedy came to check out the band and he was alone and dressed to the nines. As people kept approaching and talking to him, I wanted to at least say “hi”, but my friend threatened me if I tried to talk to him.
Flash-forward four years later, seeing Wilco at their Riviera Theatre residency was simply mesmerizing. For five shows, Wilco rocked through their expansive catalog of six studio albums and two Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue collaborations. Each night they rotated their set-lists, sometimes repeating the same songs, but doing their best to get through the myriad of hits and rarities. One of the earlier nights, they played “Dash 7” from A.M, the first time it was ever performed live. Another night local hero Andrew Bird joined the guys on stage for a few songs and some whistling during “Red Eyed & Blue.”
Wilco has always been Chicago’s home team. As the musical equivalent to the Cubs, we’ve watched them grow and survive some hard times, while composing some of their finest material in between. Since debuting in 1994, the only two original members left are Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt, but, the current lineup may be the tightest. For the Riviera shows, they augmented a horn section, went through several different guitars, traversed through vast alt-country, blues, experimental, krautrock and rock/pop genres and rhapsodized the crowd by saving their best for last.
The Wednesday evening performance began with a slow build as they kicked off with “Sunken Treasure.” Tweedy multi-tasked with the guitar and harmonica, keeping his eyes closed throughout most of the song as the lights shone down on the band creating a spiritual presence.
They next performed “One by One,” followed by “You are My Face” from Sky Blue Sky. Afterwards, Tweedy finally spoke: “You’re not tired? You’re energized?” he quipped. “We’ve been taking growth hormones.” They broke into back-to-back Yankee tunes with “Pot Kettle Black” then “War on War” with Tweedy singing, “You have to learn how to die, if you want to be alive.”
On “It’s Just That Simple,” an older A.M. song, the band broke out slide guitars and clapping ensued. The crowd went wild upon hearing its signature non-sequitor rhyming lyrics “simple/ripple.” Right before Wilco played “I Thought I Held You” from A.M, Tweedy paused and told the audience the next song is dog shit and to take a bathroom break and not even listen. He then joked that after tonight, they’re never going to play any of the records again, that it’s part of this exercise and mentioned how he wished there would be more honesty in showbiz, like on American Idol. He played the aforementioned song, which actually didn’t sound so bad.
Wilco jumped into the lovely “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” from Summerteeth with Tweedy commenting, “We’re going to rock the shit out of these songs.” Next was the emotional “Jesus Etc,” then Tweedy announced. “It’s almost time to take a break. When we come back, it’ll be like we’re opening for ourselves.” They played two more: “Walken,” a five-peat during the run and the crowd sing along “Hummingbird.”
After a half hour respite, Wilco came back ready to play for another hour-long marathon. They began with the apropos “Via Chicago” accompanied with an occasional blitzkrieg light show and thunder crashing sounds. Tweedy mentioned they want to do the residency again next year because they can’t get through everything. Next year, he promised b-sides and then joked about doing Dark Side of the Moon.
“Can’t Stand It” sounded solid and on the classic “Box Full of Letters” from A.M., Tweedy slipped and sang “box full of lecords.” He blamed his wife for the mistake. “Heavy Metal Drummer” was a safe bet as was the unreleased track, “The Thanks I Get” where Tweedy coerced the crowd to sing along.
Wilco played one for the kids, “Just a Kid,” their contribution to the SpongeBob soundtrack. “Red-Eyed Blue” followed with some strong whistling on Tweedy’s part, which were live and real, unlike Peter Bjorn and John’s pre-recorded whistles. “I Got You (at the End of Century)” rollicked with it’s hooks, licks and reprise. And Tweedy challenged his band to play harder, on “Casino Queen” where he broke into a duet with Stirratt.
Penultimate song “I’m a Wheel” from Ghost drove it home (no pun intended). The finale consisted of “Less Than You Think,” the band’s most disparate song in their discography. It’s the first and last time it’s played during their stint and demonstrated the band’s increasing experimental nature containing five minutes of flat-lining drones and distortion. Sounds oscillated, band members walked away allowing the red/blue lights to infiltrate the stage.
Finally, the lights came up and it was encore time. They performed the poppy “I’m the Man Who Loves You” from Yankee, yet another five-peat. They ended on “Dreamer in My Dreams” from Being There as Tweedy sang the final line, “Don’t forget to say goodbye when he’s gone,” and then it was goodnight.
Sunken Treasure, One By One, Shouldn’t Be Ashamed, You Are My Face, Side with the Seeds , Pot Kettle Black, War on War, Pieholden Suite, Muzzle of Bees, It’s Just That Simple, Nothing’severgoingtostandinmyway(again), I Thought I Held You , What Light, When You Wake Up Feeling Old, Summerteeth, Jesus, Etc, Walken, Hummingbird
Via Chicago, Blood of the Lamb, Can’t Stand It, Box full of Letters, Heavy Metal Drummer, Hate It Here, The Thanks I Get, Just a Kid, Red-Eyed and Blue, I Got You (at the end of the century), Casino Queen, I’m a Wheel, Less Than You Think
I’m the Man Who Loves You, Dreamer in My Dreams
Live photos by Joel Berk