No matter how many accolades Wilco’s twangy avant-pop has garnered (well-deserved Grammy noms, moving documentaries, an army of devotees, ranging from 20-something bloggers to middle-aged record geeks to even white-collar fuddy-duddies, shouting “Down in front!” to those around them), there’s still something special about a homecoming gig like Sunday’s Wilco show in Chicago, the first of a two-night stand.
Granted, the group has played bigger Chicago gigs -- 2008’s headlining Lollapalooza set and weeklong residency at the Riviera brought them audiences in the five digits -- but anticipation was still high both in and around the 7,000-seat UIC Pavilion, a mid-size arena that usually roars in response to NCAA dunks more so than to pedal-steel solos. It was clear right out of the gate that the band’s not-so-secret weapon -- guitar/feedback virtuoso Nels Cline -- shared the same jittery abandon, swinging his axe even more wildly than is standard and hopping aggressively to fan favorites “Wilco (The Song)” and “A Shot in the Arm.” During the latter, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen attacked his station as well -- with what resembled a throw pillow -- and those in attendance mightily finished Tweedy’s final refrain with full smiles.
The rest of the night’s set seemed to focus on packing small, yet defined punches. Portions that don’t necessarily call for raw power on record (“Theologians,” “One Wing,” “Hoodoo Voodoo”) were given just that, while bassist John Stirratt’s sweeping acoustic ballad “It’s Just That Simple” (often referred to as an afterthought from their 1993 debut, A.M.) sounded as essential and effecting as Cline’s shred fests (“Handshake Drugs," “At Least That’s What You Said”).
Despite this being an official arena-rock show (a fact Tweedy jokingly poked at accordingly) the band offered limited softballs for self-adulation: While “Via Chicago” wasn’t played, strikingly non-fist-pumping selections were (“Deeper Down,” “I’ll Fight”), understandably intended to showcase Wilco (The Album)’s more harmonious moments, in this first visit back home since the disc’s June release. Tweedy’s request for the audience to take lead vocals on most of “Jesus, Etc.” made for a stunning moment, as did Cline’s relentless convulsions on workouts like “Impossible Germany” and “Handshake Drugs.” His passionate, unpredictable improvisations often make for Wilco’s most goosebump-inducing moments, bringing added gusto to taut deconstruction pieces like “Misunderstood” (although no direct reference to the Windy City was made, the track’s opening lines of “Back in your old neighborhood” brought on some of the night’s most enthusiastic cheers).
As thousands of heads bobbed in unison to the blue-eyed soul of “You Are My Face” and shook frantically to the evening’s closer “I’m a Wheel,” Tweedy and company refused to rest on an easy set list for a hometown crowd that would’ve eaten up anything put in front of them. With so many family members and friends sharing in this homecoming, Tweedy comically thanked the approximate 200 folks who weren’t on their guest list (“Guess we could’ve played Schuba’s,” he mused) and those lucky enough to snatch up those spots caught Wilco at their most earnest, hilarious best.
The instrumental quintet Tortoise, 15-year vets who also hail from Chicago, sport many of the trademarks that Wilco have snuck into their last few albums: math-rock time signatures, snarled feedback and a deliberate focus on tone rather than tune. Not everyone was along for the ride Sunday -- the general audience response during Tortoise's 45-minute opening set could best be described as polite -- but those who were witnessed a virtual school on keeping jazz-influenced post-rock interesting. Doug McCombs’ deep bass and the cracking, clockwork snares of dueling drummers augmented each cut, often teaming with washes of bells and keyboards, pushing the volume to the brink. One member’s excitement for playing such a venue made for a light moment (“The last time I was here was the ‘…And Justice For All’ tour”), but elsewhere, Tortoise’s entrancing gloom was a welcome warm-up for Wilco’s sunnier take on the same elements.
Wilco set list: 10/18/09 (Chicago, IL; UIC Pavilion)
1 Wilco (The Song)
2 A Shot in the Arm
3 Bull Black Nova
4 You Are My Face
5 I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
6 One Wing
8 At Least That's What You Said
9 Deeper Down
10 Impossible Germany
11 It's Just That Simple
12 I'll Fight
13 Handshake Drugs
14 Sonny Feeling
15 Jesus, Etc.
17 I'm Always In Love
18 Hate It Here
20 I'm The Man Who Loves You
21 You Never Know
22 Heavy Metal Drummer
23 Just a Kid
26 Outtasite (Outta Mind)
27 Hoodoo Voodoo
28 I'm a Wheel
Photo Credit: Tim Bugbee/Prefixmag.com
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