Wilco: Via Chicago

This past Wednesday Wilco finished its five-night winter residency at Chicago’s legendary Riviera Theater. The career spanning series was one to remember thanks to the band’s commitment to covering every song Jeff Tweedy and company ever wrote from all six of its studio albums. A musical contract of this nature is fairly ambitious and pretty unique for any band but this particular event wouldn’t have been quite the same had Wilco chosen another city.

For fans of the band the Windy City has long been a home base for the Wilco. Sure only one of the current members, drummer Glenn Kotche, is a native (front man Tweedy hails from the St. Louis area where his original band, Uncle Tupelo got its start) but technicalities aside there is a certain connection and affection for a particular city that is rarely seen with most bands working today.

While I looked on from the crowd during the two nights (Monday and Wednesday’s final culmination) I was fortunate enough to attend, I began to wonder what it would be like if other bands followed suit and dedicated a series of shows to dig through their musical skeletons, tackling past, present and everything in between. 

The dreamer in me envisioned my favorite bands and artists covering their catalogue including all their forgotten gems, the songs that are often forgotten about when it comes to live performances. Perhaps Radiohead channeling its early days with cuts from Pablo Honey and The Bends, Pearl Jam pulling out lesser-covered albums from its past like No Code or Vitology, or maybe a band like Talking Heads or the Pixies reuniting for a week long residency somewhere to cover their respective canons in its entirety. What would we be without wishful thinking?

After some further pondering I began to realize that really a concert residency like the one Wilco just pulled off really wouldn’t be successful for every band (mastering the lyrics to over 60 songs alone is a feat I’m guessing most musicians aren’t eager to tackle). An undertaking of this requires devoted fans, just the right intimate setting and a fairly unique band such as Wilco whose career has taken on many forms.

As I mentioned before Wilco has long been a Chicago band. Sure they are nationally acclaimed but you’d be surprised how little people outside of the Chicago or the Midwest know about the band, save more recent hits such as “Jesus etc.” or the title, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While in the rest of the world Wilco is a niche little “alt country” band, as so many people tend to label them, in Chicago they are one of those adored entities that I believe many Chicagoans are truly proud of. 

The band recorded the majority of its albums in local Chicago studios, many of the members reside in or around the city, and above all Wilco always seems to come alive more when playing on local stages (case in point October’s performance at the relatively new amphitheater at Millennium Park with the dazzling skyline as the backdrop). Songwriter Jeff Tweedy even sprinkles certain aspects of the city into his songs–“Kiss and ride on the CTA,” “The wind blew me back, Via Chicago”–familiar trinkets of homage that fans can’t help but eat up.

When the five-night “Winter Residency at the Riv” was announced it didn’t take long for people to start marking their calendars. Tickets ranging from single night to 5-night admittance sold out at the blink of an eye on Ticketmaster. Soon after online ticket scalpers started boosting the prices for the now coveted ticket. 

When the shows finally arrived the band lived up to its commitment of spanning its career each night with loads of surprises and intimate sets clocking in at just shy of three hours. The current lineup has been together for four years, the longest of any other Wilco band of the past but still challenge of each night was successfully morphing into the many different incarnations of Wilco.

There’s the country as a chicken shack side, as seen on the band’s first record A.M. and the comprehensive two-disc sophomore release, Being There (quite possibly the best evidence of what the band was and where they were going musically). There’s the “highly orchestrated pop,” side of Wilco, as Tweedy told the crowd at Wednesday night’s performance, showcased on Summerteeth. The segue into American folk with the pair of Billy Bragg Mermaid Avecollaboration records, and finally the band’s experimental adventure into hi-fi, which garnered the most critical acclaim withYankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born

The band has been touring for the past year promoting its most recent effort, Sky Blue Sky, which received mixed reviews from critics and fans but very well may grow on people with age once we see where the band’s headed next. While the sets were heavy on newer songs, the band was true to its promise of touching upon every song and making each night one to remember.

While it’s true that I am a fan of the band I can’t help but write about what a joy it was watching Wilco perform rarely touched gems from its past–A.M.’s “It’s Just That Simple” (one of the few songs not song by Tweedy but rather the underappreciated bassist John Stirratt who received a roar of applause after his performance), the bitter-sweet “Say You Miss Me” from Being There, the dreamy “Pieholden Suite” and the pop harmony riddled “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again)” from Summerteeth featuring a local horn quartet or welcoming fellow Chicago musician Andrew Bird to stage to help out with the fiddle and a whimsical whistling solo on “Red Eyed and Blue” come to mind–in front of a crowd of admiring fans, many of which have stuck with Tweedy since his Uncle Tupelo days.

The band seemed right at home at the Riviera, one of Chicago’s historic old movie house turned music venues in the, and above all seemed delighted to be performing in front of such a loving audience. The more I thought about the residency I found it difficult to imagine the band pulling it off anywhere else. There was a certain current in the air both nights I attended that I rarely see at concerts. Perhaps it was the feeling of togetherness (a woman next to me said that we were all friends) or a sense of belonging. Whatever the vibe was it felt right. 

Towards the middle of Wednesday’s closing night show Tweedy took a moment between songs to tell the audience that in fact they were ignoring a big chunk of rarities, B-sides and tracks from the two Mermaid Ave. records, and that they might just have to do this again next year with a different, more ambitious goal in mind. I think I can speak for many when I say, nothing’s ever gonna stand in your way Jeff.

Setlists for the five-night residency can be found at feed://wilcobase.com/wilcobase-setlist.xml

Oscar Night Approaches

Well it’s Oscar season again, the annual soirée of Hollywood shakers and movers all dying to take the stage for their extended acceptance speeches, and all the glory and recognition that comes with that little gold statue. Normally I avoid most major award shows. The Grammys have never really interested me since I’m convinced it’s more of a popularity contest than an actual polling for the best of the best in the music industry. The Emmys always seem to ignore the shows that truly matter (The Wire anyone?) instead honoring the ones that ten years from now will be forgotten (Ugly Betty perhaps). The Golden Globes are like Oscar/Emmys light and then there is the slew of ridiculous MTV awards, which hold no real merit but are rather arenas for mass celebrity whoring. When it comes to the Academy Awards I can’t help but closely follow the annual road to the red carpet. What can I say I’m a sucker for the Oscar race.

When it’s all said and done the Academy Awards aren’t that much different from the other popularity contest award ceremonies listed above. There is plenty of celebrity attention grabbing during the pre-shows and escapades down the flash bulb red carpet. Picking the winners and nominees has always involved a certain level of illogical politics. Individuals are often honored decades too late (take last year with Scorsese), certain masters are shamelessly overlooked year after year often doomed for the end of their career achievement award, and for some reason certain films can sweep the awards (remember how well received Titanic was? Try watching it today).

Still there is something about the Oscars that for me always keeps me coming back for more and this year is certainly no exception. In my opinion 2007 was one of the finest years for film this side of the millennium not so much because of the films themselves but because of the raw performances that carried them. 

Major contenders like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood were undoubtedly very strong films, respectively, but each had flaws that, at least for me, keep them from becoming masterpieces. Still the stand-alone performances that were spawned from these films were some of the finest I’ve seen in recent years, which makes this a year of actors rather than filmmakers. 

Veteran master of the craft Daniel Day-Lewis locked down his nomination and probable win when he took on the role of oil man/power monger Daniel Plainview, an impressive performance that epitomizes truly awe-inspiring acting. With all due respects to the other contenders in the Best Acting Category–the wise Tommy Lee Jones, the bizarre but gifted Johnny Depp, the devoted to the role Viggo Mortensen and the popular favorite George Clooney–Day-Lewis’ commanding tour de force may be the finest showcase of true acting chops seen in a long time.

Ellen Page has earned the most buzz for her leading role in Juno, still people should rent Sarah Polley’s moving film Away From Her, which features the truly great leading lady role of the year by Julie Christie. Page is on her way to a promising career and while her role in Juno was something fresh I was much more impressed with her supporting turn as a psychotic, vengeful teenager in the indie sleeper Hard Candy (seriously rent this and watch as all preconceived notions of Page being a sweet little Canadian teenager go right out the window).

Powerful performances filled both supporting acting categories this year. On the actor side Javier Bardem seems to be the locked down nominee for his haunting take on Cormac McCarthy’s walking monster, Anton Chigurh in No Country, still one shouldn’t overlook the other stellar noms including my personal favorite, Casey Affleck in the shamelessly overlooked, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, seriously one of best films most people missed this year. 

Or how about Philip Seymour Hoffman for Charlie Wilson’s War who, like reserve wines and soft cheeses, seems to be getting better and better with age. Then there was the great Hal Holbrook who turned in one hell of a riveting performance in Into the Wild opposite the snubbed Emile Hirsch. 

On the supporting actress side Amy Ryan’s frightening take on the hard-lived Boston mother and druggie in the surprisingly good Gone Baby Gone would be my pick but all signs seem to be pointing towards Ruby Dee for her brief role in the fairly mediocre American Gangster. Here’s where politics get involved with Oscars. Dee is a veteran actress (and a damn good one) who has never won but honoring her for a bit role (seriously she’s on screen maybe 4 minutes total) in Gangster over someone like Tilda Swinton as the conniving businesswoman in Michael Clayton, Cate Blanchett (the new Meryl Streep) as Bob Dylan, or the young newcomer Saoirse Ronan in Atonement would be disappointing.

I’ve often thought that there should be a third acting category reserved solely for cameo and bit roles that, despite their limited time onscreen, end up becoming scene-stealers. For example, No Country featured a cast of greats but one of the finest performances in my mind came at the end when Tommy Lee Jones’ old sheriff pays a visit to his wheelchair stricken uncle/ex-lawman Ellis played wonderfully by the relatively unknown Anton Corbin. Or how about Swedish great Max Von Sydow’s small but crucial tear jerker performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film that like many others was snubbed from the Best Foreign Film category, another political flaw in the Academy’s selection of nominees. 

There were a number of stellar films to come from overseas that for some reason or another were disqualified from contention in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Besides Butterfly, which did garner a Best Directing nod for artist Julian Schnabel, other foreign tongue masterpieces were ignored. Among them Spain’s The Orphanage or Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which took home the top prize at Cannes earlier this year (SIDENOTE: this film is truly a masterpiece and is only now getting a limited theatrical release but can be viewed on IFC OnDemand). How the Academy decides what qualifies and what doesn’t in this category will always baffle me, and it’s a shame because countless classics have been overlooked due to this hitch in the system.

As for as the final coveted Best Picture category it seems to be down between No Country and this year’s Little Miss SunshineJuno. I’ve always judged the best picture films on the merits of which movies I will revisit ten or twenty years down the road. Juno was a nice movie with a great screenplay (scribe Diablo Cody is a shoe-in for Best Original Screenplay) but was it truly the finest film this year? Jesse James was on par with No Country but nobody saw it. Despite critics who say Sean Penn strayed too far from the book, Into the Wild was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time and will surely be revisited in the future. Eastern Promises was also a masterpiece for the bizarre Canadian director David Cronenberg but alas it too was snubbed from most major categories despite being just as violent as many others nominated. 

With Jon Stewart returning as host and a slew of great actors set to take the stage, not to mention the possibility of another Michael Moore “shame on you” acceptance speech slam at our current administration if he wins Best Documentary for Sicko, next Sunday’s ceremony should make for one interesting night celebrating film in 2007.

Heads Makes Sense

Just how good is Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Stop Making Sense, his masterful collaboration piece with Talking Heads? Put it in your DVD player and you’ll be amazed by just how fresh and exciting the viewing experience is even twenty years since it was first unleashed on audiences.

This past weekend I revisited the film with two friends both of whom I believe were virgins to the cinema event. The duo were for the most part familiar with the band’s music–staple cuts like “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Psycho Killer” seem to be emblems of 80s pop music. After watching it with some fresh eyes at either side of me I was reminded of just how brilliant and unprecedented the film is even today.

It seems almost pointless to give Stop Making Sense even more praise than it already has collected. After all it has long been regarded as one of the finest concert films ever made, joining the ranks of Scorsese’s documentation of The Band’s final soiree in The Last Waltz, or The Complete Monterey Pop Festival. Still after revisiting the film yet again (it may be the one DVD I own that he has seen the most wear and tear) and watching at least one of my friends get lost in the performance I began to realize more than ever why this may be the finest marriage of film and music out there. 

To be fair Stop Making Sense is not exactly a concert film. Sure it was filmed over the course of three performances during the band’s tour for its hugely successful fifth album, Speaking In Tongues, but audience aside this is a conceptualized piece of art. Unlike most recorded concerts where a band plays off the audience and the sensation is supposed to mimic the feeling of being a part of the show, Stop Making Sense is about simply focusing on a band in its prime showing their musical evolution on stage. The film’s concept, which was designed by the band, lead singer David Byrne and director Jonathan Demme is nothing short of brilliant. 

Brilliance is knowing that leading off with a stripped down, perfectly performed version of the hit “Psycho Killer” (nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a electronic drum sample) can send shivers of anticipation down the viewer’s spine. Brilliance is realizing that you don’t need fancy lighting or elaborate sets to successfully perform music that has always treaded the waters of minimalism. Brilliance is envisioning that something as simple and bizarre as a thin man in an over-sized suit could become eye candy. 

From the start of Stop Making Sense it seemed almost too obvious that the film was the kind of culmination piece the band had been working up to throughout its career. Sure the band would later release three more albums following the success of Sense and Speaking In Tongues, but the material covered during this film is undoubtedly a comprehensive overlook of the band’s progression and wide range of sounds. 

Stop Making Sense starts with Heads’ leading man, David Byrne alone on stage with a guitar, a tape player and a vision. The opening opus, “Psycho Killer” is followed up with the beautiful ballad, “Heaven” with Byrne being joined by bass player and glue of the band Tina Weymouth (it’s often easy to miss just how crucial and surprisingly complex her bass lines are for all Heads songs). Drummer Chris Frantz, a musician with a freaky mastering of rhythm and time, comes out for the perfectly calculated “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel” forming the band’s original lineup from its art school days.

Jerry Harrison, formerly of The Modern Lovers, joins the trio for the funkier “Found A Job,” followed by the addition of two female backup singers, a percussionist and the ultra bizarre keyboardist/sound effect wizard, Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic acclaim for “Slippery People.” By the time the final member of the lineup, the wonderfully alive rhythm guitarist Alex Weir, joins the band for “Burning Down the House,” the song sheds its radio friendly hit skin and instead serves as a testament for what the band has in store for the rest of the performance. 

The layering of sound and build up from minimalist garage rock to full-blown Afro-funk dance music perfectly mimics the band’s career and is without a doubt where the concept for the film/performance is fully realized. While the band no doubt dabbles in the genres of funk and dance the line “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco” from the masterful “Life During Wartime” is proof enough that what the Heads were doing on stage was something fresh and to this day unmatched.

Like all great bands of current and past times Talking Heads were always morphing its sound and experimenting with the possibilities. While watching the film my friend said he liked what he saw but wasn’t hesitant to point out the weirdness of not only Byrne but the whole band. He wasn’t wrong. 

The Talking Heads were a bizarre band. Byrne plays the quirky, nerd rocker persona better than most and the band’s wide range of influences–African Fela Kuti rhythm, New York garage rock/punk sounds, George Clintonesque funk and theatrics, gospel traditional vocal styling, to name a few–go against the norm of pop music of now and then.  Still it’s this uniqueness and willingness to put the art ahead of the fame that made this band so fascinating. 

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After some early hits the band could have gone the way of The Police or U2 or countless other big name acts from that period but instead they stretched the limit of their sound thus maintaining their status as quite possibly the best American band ever. Stop Making Sense is their manifesto. Behind the bizarre dance moves, the big suit, the nonsensical lyrics, the quirky synth sound effects, or the tender tango with a floor lamp there is a group of musicians playing their hearts out and revisiting the already impressive career behind them. 

Stop Making Sense is a perfectly calculated, perfectly choreographed declaration of a band that wasn’t afraid to follow its vision of what music should be and how it doesn’t always have to make sense. At the end of “Life During Wartime” Byrne briefly interacts with the rarely seen theater audience and pretty much sums up the intent of the film, the concert and the music itself when he says, “Does anyone have any questions?”