Saturday, December 17, 2011

Concert Review - Wilco at The Vic, December 15, 2011

Some days you listen to music because you like it. On other days, you listen to music because you need it. I didn't realize it at the time, but yesterday was one of the latter. It was a day like one that we've all had. You know, rough week, work problems, bad weather, etc. To top it off, my girlfriend was sick, so I had nobly suggested we sit in the balcony rather than try and hug the stage - a suggestion which landed me distressingly close to the rafters in the old theater.

We were at The Vic for something a long time in the making - Wilco's triumphant Chicago return. As part of their "amazing shrinking residency", they had already played the Civic Opera House on Monday and the Riviera on Tuesday and now they were settling into the relative cosy confines where they recorded their 2006 live album, Kicking Television. Not only that, but they were doing it the right way, inviting Chicago scene legends to open each night, which meant that tonight we'd get to see Jon Langford and his band Skull Orchard.

After fiddling with The Reader for about forty minutes, I was still in a bit of a pissy mood, squinting to see the openers as they took the stage and generally unhappy. Then I noticed that they were all wearing Russian fur hats, at which I couldn't help but smile. The song sounded good too, even this far up I could feel that the band was kicking harder and sounding better than they had even at their excellent Hideout performance in September. Langford introduced the second song with a wry remark about the departure of US soldiers from Iraq before launching into the sardonic and well-executed "Strange Ways To Win Wars". By the time he announced that his third song would be a Slits cover I was hopelessly taken in. 

Jon and his Skull Orchestra were irrepressible with Langford's chunky riffs matched by fiery guitar leads, a moaning fiddle and inspired backing vocals from his bandmates. The group danced around the stage like a bunch of kids on holiday. It was impossible not to get lost in the music and energy. I didn't look up until he announced that he had two songs left ("Sentimental Marching Song" and the Three Johns prescient classic "Death of the European") only to notice that not only was I no longer angry, but that I had been positively reinvigorated by the music.

Wilco took the stage about a half hour later and the atmosphere had gone from upbeat to elated although they did little to acknowledge this, walking out silently and launching into the upbeat, ambling, "One Sunday Morning". The country feel fit Jeff Tweedy's appearance perfectly, as he was dressed in his Desire-era Bob Dylan best, stetson hat and all. It's a slow but gorgeous take from their new album and works well as an opener, if for no other reason than it says to the audience, "relax, we've got all the time in the world and we're just warming up." "This is how I tell it / oh, but it's long" - not a problem Jeff.

They then segued into "Hell Is Chrome" before hitting the early highlight, "Art Of Almost". Now you may think that I'm biased in this song's favor, but even a dispassionate observer couldn't have remained neutral in the face of the range, versatility and power that Wilco brought to it live. From the gurgling electronic backings to the menacing bass and tri-guitar assault, each member showed their chops with a well coordinated light show flashing behind them, creating an almost visceral experience that packed a wallop, even from the upper balcony.

After confidently reasserting their prowess with the twin epics from The Whole Love, Wilco proceeded to burn the place down, one song at a time. They stared in their "drinking man's avant-jam band" mode, burning through three A Ghost Is Born numbers as well as the best version of "Radio Cure" and most angular version of "Hotel Arizona" I've ever heard early in the set. They showed equal adeptness at playing material from the new album as shifting into pop imperssario or psychedelic Americana mode as seen with spirited performances of "Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway (Again)" (former) and Mermaid Avenue chestnut "Hesitating Beauty" (latter).

This was clearly a set for the old, hometown fans as the band dispensed with old warhorses such as "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", "A Shot In The Arm" and "Handshake Drugs" (classics though they are) for deeper cuts like EP favorites "Kicking Television" and "A Magazine Called Sunset" or album tracks like "Summerteeth" and "Say You Miss Me". The band sounded more confident and bolder than I've ever seen them on such songs with Nels Cline gouging his own inventive but classic mark into the mid-ninties material and the rest of the band indulging themselves with both volume and subtle accents whenever appropriate.

As the show progressed, Tweedy showed off his ever-improving stage manner, joking with the crowd about double-necked guitars while handling hecklers and acolytes with equal grace and aplomb. The vibe was just GOOD. You could see the band reveling digging deep into an impressively extensive catalog and feel the crowd enjoying the privilege of seeing the local boys made good show off. At this point Wilco is a rock band in the grand old tradition that can hold its own with your Dylans or Zeppelins or Stones. By the time the encores hit, everyone was happy and I'd entered that musical zone where problems from the job seem not only diminished but almost remote. For two-and-a-half hours last night, I was able to live inside Wilco's musical world.

The first encore showcased the group's versatility. At some point they'd turned "Hate It Here" (the first and only Sky Blue Sky song of the night, sadly) into a skronky singalong with just as much soul as the sweet cerebral R&B of "Theologians" before closing with the meaty muscle and nostalgia of "Casino Queen". The second encore actually managed to top the first, starting with "Hoodoo Voodoo". Wilco stretched out the herky-jerky rhythm of the song seemingly past it's breaking point with a guitar duel between Cline and Pat Samsone whilst a shirtless, mustachioed man ran around the stage playing cowbell with increasing urgency. I can honestly say it's the most fun I've ever seen the band have onstage and by this point the audience was a dancing and swaying along with glee.

This energy tumbled into "Outtasite (Outta Mind)", whose midwestern meat-and-potatoes guitar and lyrics gave further release to the crowd's emotions. Finally, instead of ending on a traditional high note, they graced us with perhaps one of the prettiest, saddest songs of the back catalog. Jeff Tweedy plucked a basic pattern as Nels wrung emotion out of his steel guitar like water out of a wet towel. "The Lonely 1" focuses on the personal emptiness of solitary stardom while also celebrating the genuine love and power that such people can command from fans. Wilco, now a stable six piece making music as good as any they've put down, probably can't relate to the first part, but I don't know about anyone in the audience who could deny the second.

When the house lights finally rose after the second encore, my life wasn't any materially different than before but nonetheless I was happy. I was happy that Wilco still sounded so good, happy that Chicago was able to welcome them back, happy to be able to share it with someone amazing - basically I had made an emotional 180. On this night, in this week, in this cold, dark month, a group of middle-aged men had made my life better through sound. My intellectual mind was happy, but my emotional mind was ecstatic and flooded with dopamine. These are bands and songs that mean something and they were performed by people at the top of their game who were unafraid to take that as loosely and seriously as was demanded. We all need that every once in a while.

One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)
Hell Is Chrome
Art Of Almost
I Might
Muzzle Of Bees
Hotel Arizona
Radio Cure
At Least That's What You Said
Rising Red Lung
Say You Miss Me
Wilco (The Song)
Capitol City
Hesitating Beauty
Standing O
A Magazine Called Sunset
Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (Again)
Dawned On Me
Encore 1
Whole Love
Hate It Here
You Never Know
Casino Queen
Kicking Television
Encore 2
Hoodoo Voodoo
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
The Lonely 1

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