Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Home for the Holidays: Opening Winterlude on the 'Ode to Joy' Tour, Wilco Is Helped by One of Their Heroes -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Robyn Hitchcock
Chicago Theatre
December 15, 2019
(also playing 12/16, 18, 19)

Over what is now a 25-year-career, Wilco has done quite well for themselves, putting out many acclaimed albums, selling out numerous Chicago shows and playing all around the world.

Many acts would kill to be able to fill four shows at the Chicago Theatre, and in the annals of alternative rock I think it's fair to call them a "major band."

But it does seem a bit surprising, to me if no one else, that Sunday's show at the splendiferous Chicago Theatre was the 14th time I've seen Wilco live.

OK, so that includes a 4th of July free show at Grant Park in 1996 when I really just heard them from the lawn, and an opening slot for R.E.M. in 1999. But it doesn't count one of the coolest gigs, when I got to see Wilco's singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy perform Wilco songs (alongside various assemblages of music students) in the living room of my friend's sister, as a benefit for Chicago's venerated Old Town School of Folk Music. I even got to meet him and chat a bit.

Robyn Hitchcock
So heck, let's call it 15.

That's more than I've seen anyone live except Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pearl Jam and Wilco's Chicago brethren, the Smashing Pumpkins (in various incarnations).

And it's now more than I've seen the Foo Fighters, Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and the Who.

I love Wilco, but not as much as any of those acts. 

They have many stellar songs, Tweedy is an amiable if at times crusty frontman and the band's diverse musicality--led by guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche--is fantastic.

They're local heroes, and I'm glad to have seen them as often as I have, including once again.

Yet compared to the other artists mentioned and some other favorites of mine, Wilco just isn't that exciting.

In part this is because--especially at this point on several recent albums--they traipse in folk and country stylings much more than what I would call hard rock.

From the stage on Sunday, Tweedy spoke of the band's knack for doing "waltzes and laments" and that even when they get the party started, it's mostly "mid-tempo rock."

I still love their harder-charging late '90s albums--Being There and Summer Teeth--when they reminded me at times of The Replacements, and my favorite Wilco shows have been ones where they've largely rocked out.

But to be clear, I didn't attend on Sunday expecting them to do.

Not every concert need blow my head off, and I certainly didn't mind that in being comfortably seated in the last row of the balcony, no one in front of me was inspired to stand. 

Wilco is touring on their 11th studio album, Ode to Joy, which is a rather sedate set and still settling in for me.

Eight of the show's 28 songs--see the setlist here--came from the 2019 release, and particularly early on, set the relaxed tone.

They mined their catalog for several gems--"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "War on War," "Hummingbird," "Via Chicago," "Box Full of Letters," "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "I'm Always in Love," "California Stars"--and the overall vibe was of a strong, but fairly typical Wilco show.

I've given most Wilco concerts @@@@ or @@@@1/2 (out of 5) and really could have gone either way on this one.

I settled on the latter for a couple main reasons.

First, was the band's hand-picked opening act, Robyn Hitchcock, a veteran literate British singer/songwriter once in The Soft Boys and later backed by the Egyptians.

Hitchcock is one of those guys whose name I've long known, but whose music I've never acquainted myself with as much as I should have.

I did once catch him opening for R.E.M. 30 years ago, and was intending to see him last January if something--weather, illness, ticket prices, can't quite recall--didn't intercede.

But I've never owned any albums, nor in these days of streaming, sought to explore much of his vast output.

And I forgot he was opening this show until I got there, so I didn't Spotifamiliarize myself with anything ahead of time.

Still, with Robyn solo on acoustic guitar, cheekily telling the audience that he was "incredibly old" and sharing odd stories about his cats, hens and other such stuff, Hitchcock's half-hour set was a delight.

His setlist isn't published, but I think "I Pray When I'm Drunk," "My Wife and My Dead Wife," "Queen of Eyes," "Madonna of the Wasps" and "I Want to Tell You About What I Want" covers most, and perhaps all, of what he played.

I don't typically loop the opening act into my rating of a headline artist, but not only did he speak of being there expressly because the Wilco guys were longtime fans, Hitchcock made a cameo--get it?--on the last two songs of the night.

With Robyn on lead vocals, first was a cover of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," followed by a great "I Wanna Destroy You" from the Soft Boys' highly acclaimed 1980 album, Underwater Moonlight.

So this was a case where the opening act demonstrably abetted my overall enjoyment.

And while, even with a few late rockers, Wilco were largely their laid-back selves, when they did get thunderous--such as the cacophony that erupts in "Via Chicago," some brilliant guitar playing by Cline, which turned "Impossible Germany" into an unexpected highlight, the escalating anxious rattle of "Misunderstood"--it was truly blissful.

And served to reiterate why I keep coming back.

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

I wonder how many readers got the Hitchcock cameo joke? This just confirms to me that rock died in the mid-90's.