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