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

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?”






Concert Review: Eric Clapton

Concert Review: Eric Clapton
September 20, 2006
The United Center
Chicago, IL

The Cream of Clapton, Live

Eric Clapton, one of the godfathers of blues and rock guitar, played a near flawless show covering his early and latter days Wednesday night to a semi full United Center. While some people might coin the British rock prodigy the Cadillac of guitar of players, they are lying. If such a comparison must be made Clapton is the 50s era fire-red Maserati coupe of axe players. He is the kind of legend whose talent and career are unprecedented. While some of his recent solo endeavors have been mediocre at best, his slow and successful turn towards more straight blues proves that Clapton is still one of those rare musical gems of yesternow.

Dressed casually in jeans and a pink Oxford and sporting his legendary black Fender Stratocaster, ‘Slowhand’ Clapton and his band took the simply lit/decorated stage opening with the always classic, “Pretending,” from Clapton’s 1989 solo release, Journeyman. The blues rock anthem was followed by the faithful blue infused rendition of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” followed by the B-side, “Got To Get Better In A Little While” from Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos days. The first three tunes, melded together without pause, were perfect precursors for a night of songs covering Clapton’s entire cannon, from his early Cream days to his long blues jams. No rock was left unturned at the lively arena.

The opening trio was followed by a smooth 15-minute slow blues jam of, “Old Love” (also from Journeyman), which featured guest guitarist/song’s co-writer and long time Clapton collaborator, Robert Cray, whose band also opened the show. The song, which proved to be one of the main highlights of the night, featured beautiful two virtuosic guitar solos from Clapton and Cray.

Other highlights from the first half of the show included “Motherless Child” (a song improved when played live) from the 1994 record, From the Cradle. Half way through the show the band performed a four-song sit down acoustic set, featuring wonderful versions of the blues standard, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and Clapton’s “Running on Faith.”

The latter half of the performance showcased some of Clapton’s best-known anthems, including the rendition of “After Midnight” from Clapton’s first solo release, the sappy but always simple and moving, “Wonderful Tonight,” the psychedelic “Cocaine,” and the Derek and the Dominos era version of “Layla,” which along with Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” remains to this day one of the finest guitar rock pieces ever recorded.

The band played one stirring encore of the blues standard “Crossroads,” another of Clapton’s timeless classics. The version again featured brilliant vocal and guitar styling from Robert Cray, who sang the first two verses and joined Clapton on the last.

While Clapton has aged since his early days with The Yardbirds and Cream (he is quickly making his way to 70), his voice and sound has not deteriorated like so many musicians of the past who fade away. Rather Clapton has found a very unique style and sound that shows career maturity. His band, featuring two young guitar virtuosos, Derek Trucks (kin to Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks) and Doyle Bramhall II, respectively, add a perfect blend of country rock and blues slide guitar work to Clapton’s own crisp axe chops.

With a new album, The Road to Escondido, slated for a November release, and probable future solo and collaboration tours with blues legend J.J. Cale, it is clear that Clapton is not retiring anytime soon. Still, for anyone interested in rock and blues music he is one of those must see artists who truly is one of rock music’s best-kept legends.

Concert Review: Gnarls Barkley

Concert Review:
Gnarls Barkley
The Riviera
Chicago, IL
September 11, 2006

Gnarls Barkley, the musical spawn of two of today’s most fascinating hip-hop hipsters, brought in the noise and the funk to a semi full Riviera theater Monday night. The group, founded by Atlanta rapper/singer Cee-Lo (once frequent Goodie Mob collaborator) and DJ Danger Mouse, whose Beatles/Jay-Z mash up “Grey Album” took the internet by storm a couple years back, flooded the airwaves this summer with the ever-so-catchy mega hit, “Crazy.” While their concise live act was entertaining and enjoyable, it lacked the intriguing power of their studio album, “St. Elsewhere,” mainly due to poor sound mixing and a rushed set.

It’s hard to classify Gnarls Barkley into any one sub-genre of modern pop music. It’s not quite straight hip-hop, not quite straight rock. It toys with the sounds of indie and 60s psychedelic rock while also blending in modern soul, R&B, Motown and funk melodies and rhythms. Bottom line is during a time where rap and hip-hop groups can often be a dime a dozen, Gnarls Barkley proves that its cool for art to imitate art by treading the waters of a number of different musical soundscapes.

The show was a mix of tracks from “St. Elsewhere” combined with a handful of obscure covers of bands as random as The Doors to indie alt-crooners, The Violent Femmes. Highlights from the set included the obvious opus, “Crazy,” which featured an interesting but short intro by the groups string section, The G-Strings, and the gospel anthem, “Just a Thought.”

Then there was the stage presence, an aspect of Gnarls Barkley that received just as much attention this summer as their chart rising single. Dressed in pajama suits and slippers the 13-piece ensemble took the blue-lit stage to a roaring crowd. Cee-Lo, who must enjoy hearing himself speak, was very animate throughout the night, dancing, shouting, enticing the audience and at one point falling over on stage–an accident that was no doubt a result of extreme energy and joy.

Danger Mouse, who is without a doubt the mastermind behind the music side of Gnarls Barkley, was somberly perched over a slew of antique keyboards and soundboards through most of the set, looking up every once and a while to enjoy a sip of bottled beer.

Gnarls Barkley is definitely one of those modern acts to keep an eye on. Cee-Lo, like fellow singer Sleepy Brown has for so long been just a hook vocalist for bigger acts like Outkast or Goodie Mob, however, through Barkley he is able to truly shine and is one hell of a talented singer. With a slightly revamped stage set up, mastered sound mixing and a longer and possibly more accessible set, Gnarls Barkley could very well move away from simply being a studio group and join the ranks of groups like The Roots who continue to toy with the different sounds and musical influences.