Thursday, December 11, 2014

Music Is My Savior: Even in Mining Sunken Treasure, Wilco Makes aJoyful Noise, Monday -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Wilco
w/ Jim Becker Group
Riviera Theatre
December 8, 2014
(also 12/5, 6, 9, 11, 12)
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Wilco now stands clearly as Chicago's biggest and best rock band (although I will always love the Smashing Pumpkins more, at least in terms of the best of their music and shows, predominantly with their original lineup or some semblance of it).

In 2014, they are celebrating their 20th anniversary, although in fairness to the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan--who is often referenced derisively as the only remaining original member of his band--it's worth noting that only singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt go all the way back to 1994 with Wilco. The rest of the now 6-piece unit joined the band in 2004.

But excepting a non-headlining Taste of Chicago gig sometime in the '90s and a 2002 show at the Riviera that I found boring, all of the Wilco shows I've seen have been with the current lineup.

This includes Wilco gigs in a variety of venues around Chicago--the Auditorium, Millennium Park, Lollapalooza, UIC Pavilion--plus a 2012 show in Davenport, Iowa.

I also had one of the greatest musical thrills of my life in March 2009 when I saw Tweedy play a bunch of Wilco songs within the living room of my friend's sister's house, accompanied by local music students.

So I've heard Wilco perform much of their canon over the years, and consider them a great band.

But I have most liked them live at the Riviera Theatre--such as in 2011 when they played a hard-charging rock set that I dubbed the "Wilco of my dreams" given the preponderance of electric guitar-driven gems from 1996's Being There and 1999's Summerteeth, still my favorite albums of theirs--and also in 2008 when they did, like now, a multi-night residency at the relatively intimate venue.

I explain all this to defray any perceived disenchantment some might imagine on my part if noting Monday night's setlist at the Riv. As with, to varying degrees, all 4 now completed shows of the 6-gig Wilco Winterlude, there were a good number of songs played that I would consider relatively obscure or drowsy, perhaps both.

Now first let me say that, especially in their hometown, Wilco has some of the most devoted fans of any band anywhere.

So some may undoubtedly sneer at me for being a pseudo-fan or poser to admit that tunes like "Company in My Back," "Cars Can't Escape," "It's Just That Simple," "Pieholden Suite," "Airline to Heaven" and others aren't songs I can readily hum.

So be it.

I have every Wilco album, but won't deny I return most to Being There, Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot--and perhaps not even to those in their entirety all that often.

But even if I can refer to several of Monday's songs as "obscure" without feeling a sense of compunction, I am doing so without complaining.

Yes, the hall lit up when the band--on the night's 4th song--played the relatively "poppish," better-known "War on War."

And following some crowd-pleasers at the end of the main set, including "Box Full of Letters," "Passenger Side," "Walken" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You," the harder-rocking trio of songs in the first encore--"You Never Know," "Can't Stand It" and, aptly for the night, "Monday"--sounded absolutely buoyant.

Even on songs that I didn't know, the band always sounded great, in large part due to the pair of "mad scientist" keyboardists--Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone--who, along with frenetic drummer Glenn Kotche, help give Wilco a blissfully unique soundscape.

Like no other band I can think of, Wilco seems to create a sense of musical chaos that feels as if everything is spinning maniacally--yet  wonderfully--out of control, although it never really is.

This was most incandescent on the crescendo of "Misunderstood" and during the cascading swells of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)."

At moments like this on Monday, Wilco sounded about as good as live music can.

So although had I seen this set at a festival--unlikely given that the show ran nearly 2-1/2 hours--or likely even in an arena, or if this was my first Wilco concert, I may have come away disappointed with the amount of slower, more arcane material, the band did enough to convince me that it was a truly first-rate showcase in full, albeit with a smaller handful of truly tent-pole moments than I may have preferred.

But the 6-night residency at a venue they likely could fill 30+ times is clearly meant as a celebration and exploration of the band's entire 20-year career--although Tweedy verbally rebuffed any notion that they intended to play every album cut over the course of the Winterlude, and admonished anyone critical of them repeating some songs throughout the stand--and if on the night I was fortunate enough to score tickets, I didn't get to hear "I'm Always in Love," "ELT," "Heavy Metal Drummer," "A Shot in the Arm," "Hummingbird," "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" or other personal favorites, so be it.

Having enjoyed enough ear candy to go home happy after a 4-song "unplugged" second encore, I was content to hear "Sunken Treasure"--whose lyrics state, identifiably, that "music is my savior"--both as a deep cut from Being There and as a theme for the evening, the run and, in large part, Wilco's estimable career to date.

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