Tonight’s the Night
Wilco at the Riviera Theater, Chicago
By Derek Phillips
In 1973, Neil Young toured for an album that was vastly different than the country comfortable Harvest that had made his name as a solo artist the year before. In fact, the set list for many of the ’73 tour dates didn’t include a single song from Harvest, but instead had tracks from Tonight’s the Night, Young’s harrowing tribute to close friends and drug casualties that wouldn’t see official release for almost two more years. As Wilco’s set closed in on ten songs, almost entirely from their as yet unreleased album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF), I began to wonder if Tweedy was walking in Neil Young’s footsteps
Wilco took the stage of Chicago’s Riviera Theater to the precocious and creepy strains of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a song and a movie that are equally innocent and dark—not unlike Wilco’s latest recordings.
From the onset it was clear things had changed since their last Thanksgiving show, now a Chicago tradition. First, the stage was outfitted with white Christmas lights resembling stars against a black sky. Large yellow-white oriental globe lamps also hung above the band adding to the stark, dark spacey-ness of the fantastic YHF.
More importantly, guitarist/keyboardist/collaborator Jay Bennett was gone, having left the band a few months ago. Bennett’s influence on Wilco’s best work (arguably 1996’s Being There and 1998’s Summer Teeth) is undeniable. His sense of melody and skill on keyboards, guitar and as a sound engineer were surely the bedrock of what made Wilco the great band it is today. And most of the first set avoided any guitar-heavy songs with the band focusing on its moodier and more keyboard-driven tracks.
From set opener “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” to “A Shot in the Arm” to the tenth song in the set, “Misunderstood” the band floated through their more introspective songs, completely ignoring the implied demand for toe-tappers like AM‘s “Casino Queen” or “King Pin.” Ten songs down and no sign of any of the lighter, country-inspired tunes that established Wilco as THE band of alt.country. Was Tweedy antagonizing the audience like Young did on his Tonight’s the Night tour? This show was a journey, a test of faith for both the band and the audience. Wilco was walking into the darkness and we were about to see who would follow.
But the band had an ace in the hole with Glenn Kotche on drums. If the driving guitar and spirit of Jay Bennett was missing, it was craftily hidden by Kotche’s truly inspired percussion. Tastefully injecting stuttered percussive flashes into Tweedy’s sparsely populated songs, Kotche added a level of sophistication to songs that could easily be lost in their own space. As the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot wrote in his review of the previous night’s show, “Kotche pulls melody and texture from an instrument typically consigned to the rhythm section.”
And just as other senses sometimes sharpen when one is lost, so too have the members of Wilco stepped up in Bennett’s absence. Longtime auxiliary player, Leroy Bach, washed the songs in lush keyboard parts and though not an inspired guitarist like Bennett, Bach is a capable guitarist who may in time find his own style as the band progresses.
But the MVP of the show was undoubtedly bassist John Stirratt. His pristine harmonies and McCartney-esque bass playing pulled together all of the elements, old and new, of a band in flux. Most notably on YHF’s “War on War.”
And, in the end, this was not an antagonistic show, nor was it an exercise in artistic bullying in which the band forces the audience to swallow unfamiliar material wholesale. Wilco may be moving on but it’s not forgetting and the band played a number of songs covering the seven years of its history. Old timers sang along loudly to “Pick Up the Change” and “I Got You” while their girlfriends cooed at Tweedy as he lightly touched their hearts with “Far Far Away,” “Sunken Treasure” and “One By One.”
In fact, it was in the first encore that IT actually happened. Tweedy finally delivered “California Stars,” his equivalent to Young’s “Heart of Gold.” And that was the difference between the two. Where Neil Young was dragging his audience through forced group therapy in 1973, Tweedy was just asking a loyal audience to follow him. And we did.
There are similarities, of course. Wilco has drifted away from the roots-rock sound that established it as a true American treasure, just as Young drifted away from the down-home folksiness of Harvest (No Depressioners can find solace in the fact that Young has continually returned to his folk roots, just as Tweedy may someday). But in walking away, both Young and Tweedy have stepped into new territory. As Young said in an interview years ago, “Heart of Gold” may have put him in the middle of the road, but he soon got bored and headed for the ditch where you meet more interesting people—maybe even Jeff Tweedy.