By: Alex Wood | Photo: @chicagotheatre
Opening with “Ashes Of American Flags,” Wilco instantly foreshadowed the dynamic of their first performance of 2017’s four-night Winterlude run at Chicago Theatre, its spacious, acoustic ambiance and pointed political theme to remain for the majority of their set.
An unusual but enticing beginning, the song got the ball slowly rolling, its soft acoustic guitar and gently presented lyrics building slowly to a majestic climax led by an electric solo from Nels Cline.
Inarguably a downer and in no way a common choice for a first song, conscious decisions like these would shape the evening’s music.
Followed by Schmilco tracks “If I Ever Was A Child” and “Cry All Day,” the show took on a simplistic campfire vibe, the new songs lacking the climactic intensity of the old, leading audience members anxious for something bigger.
Fortunately, a pairing of the spastic “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and the electronic-tinged “Art Of Almost” demonstrated the band’s instrumental and songwriting prowess, both songs filling the large theater perfectly with their dense, shifting layers, the former leading straight into the latter.
“Art Of Almost” found the band exercising a freedom to explore new territory that most wouldn’t associate with Wilco, a feeling that was lacking in much of the show’s first half.
Star Wars cut “Pickled Ginger” felt like an interlude after the prior monstrosities, its simplistic, chugging riff saved by Cline’s odd forcefulness.
Stranger yet was “Misunderstood,” the normally extreme track dialed down to a folk tune, edges rounded and experimentation minimized. A perfect example of the set’s dynamic thus far, Tweedy continued to primarily wield an acoustic guitar, favoring a more reserved approach that aligned with the straightforward songs from Schmilco and Star Wars.
It begged the questions: is this a new era for Wilco? Is the band purposely simplifying their music? And, regardless, is there any value to this simplicity, when applied to a classic like “Misunderstood?”
The acoustic nature remained, with the too-rarely-performed “Pot Kettle Black” popping up as a highlight before the nearly mandatory “Via Chicago.”
“Bull Black Nova,” from the often-ignored Wilco (The Album), found the band in top form, a percussive breakdown in the middle earning applause before its spacious ending.
Ultimate rarity “Reservations” followed, the band performing the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot closer in a shortened acoustic rendition, heartfelt and beautiful. The performance seemed to act as a bookend to the soft and acoustic first half of the set, with the band instantly moving into more electric, upbeat and experimental selections.
As always, “Impossible Germany” found the band in top form, technically, the long jam dependent on Nels Cline’s unparalleled ability to drive a song endlessly to new heights with noisy guitar proficiency, its final riffs hitting like a revelation, acting as a much needed release.
Here was the Wilco that I had missed for the majority of the show’s first half.
After “Box Full Of Letters,” Tweedy became aggressively political, addressing the audience with an anti-Trump banter that directly called out the president’s supporters.
“If anybody voted for Trump…remember you voted for a reality TV star,” he said, ending by saying, “we’re going to persist, we’re going to resist.”
Oddly, “Heavy Metal Drummer” followed, the song’s lyrics sounding silly after the heavy comments that preceded it, but still visibly pleasing the excited crowd. Tweedy also notably included alternate lyrics about the song’s female protagonist flashing the mentioned drummer, a treat for longtime fans.
“I’m The Man Who Loves You” paired perfectly with “Hummingbird,” the latter sounding like a long-lost track from the Beatles’ later years, Cline’s sharp guitar tone piercing through the layers of pianos.
The band closed the set with “The Late Greats,” its fun, simple nature ending on a happy note.
The encore felt slightly disjointed, with the sloppy, electric “Random Name Generator” giving way to the acoustic sing-along “Jesus, Etc.” Schmilco track “Locator” followed, its strange splattering of noise giving its live performance extra edge.
“We haven’t played a show in the United States since we figured out how to play this one,” Tweedy joked before “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” arguably the band’s most epic live song.
After a long, noisy guitar jam, the song reached its apex, the band performing the crushing, electric riff in unison, an impenetrable wall of rock ‘n roll filling the theater with force.
Yet this time was different.
Inspired by a recent audience in South America, the band then toned it down as Tweedy asked the audience to sing the riff, a celebratory chorus instantly rising from the concertgoers. The band returned to the riff for one more round and promptly ended the show.
This is Wilco at their best. This is why audiences have embraced them with such devout sincerity. This is why you simply can’t understand the band without seeing them in person.
Yet the previously raised questions still lingered: Why were the first 12 songs so mild in comparison? Was it the setlist, or the band? Was it the new songs to blame, when Summerteeth, Being There and A.M. were nowhere to be found?
I still don’t have an answer.
The band returned to stage for “California Stars,” the feel-good Guthrie track bringing the show full circle from its original campfire feel, and the first night of Winterlude was over.
In the end, it seemed that the highs and lows of the set came from the setlist’s construction itself. The band performed seven of 11 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracks and nearly half of Schmilco, while their first three records remained almost entirely ignored.
Perhaps a sign of what’s to come in the next three performances, assuming no songs are repeated, this could wind up being amongst the band’s strangest Chicago residencies yet.
1. Ashes Of American Flags
2. If I Ever Was A Child
3. Cry All Day
4. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
5. Art Of Almost
6. Pickled Ginger
8. Someone To Lose
9. Pot Kettle Black
10. Via Chicago
11. Bull Black Nova
13. Impossible Germany
14. We Aren’t The World (Safety Girl)
15. Box Full Of Letters
16. Heavy Metal Drummer
17. I’m The Man Who Loves You
19. The Late Greats
20. Random Name Generator
21. Jesus, Etc.
23. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
24. California Stars