Wilco w/ Elliott Smith
Rivera Theatre, Chicago
So there I was there I was there I was…in THE CONGO.
Standing in a short line in front of Chicago’s Riviera Theatre, hoping to see Wilco with Elliott Smith, performing at the Riv courtesy of Northwestern University’s student life organization. I am not a student at Northwestern. So the possibility of my pals and I enjoying the show fell on the bad side of maybe. And then the sun broke through the clouds.
For whatever reason, and contrary to published information, the NU people let the plebeians purchase tickets to their clubhouse event. And so we found ourselves with a front row seat to see a Grammy-nominated folkie break down and a rock band bask in the Billboard glow of an album too long without a country.
Jake Brown has already illustrated the sad facts surrounding Elliott Smith and his right hand’s performance. Watching Smith’s public breakdown, I felt like I’d walked into my house to find Robert Downey, Jr sleeping on my chaise lounge. During a disjointed, rambling 45 minutes, bright flashes of Smith’s brilliance would explode and fade away, their afterimage replaced by dodgy rants about his stiff little fingers. It wasn’t irritating that he could only stumble through three songs – it was saddening. Because even when he was mumbling half-remembered lyrics, or strumming the opening chords to forgotten songs, there was genius in Elliott Smith’s stupor.
After spending the break wondering whether Smith’s condition was a result of his rumored dalliance with the White Horse, or simply the product of whatever breadfruit had been stocked in the green room, it was comforting to watch the four members of Wilco walk quietly to their instruments (without help) and prepare to play. Jeff Tweedy is nothing if not a moody guy, so to find he and his band in good spirits was a relief. As the lighting took effect and Wilco began building the mystery of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” the prowess Wilco’s newest members – instrumentalist Leroy Bach and drummer Glenn Kotche – became self-evident. As Bach released squalls of fuzz from his bank of keyed instruments and sampling rigs, Kotche laid down the choppy fills that sketch out the introduction to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And right on cue, with a smile from fast-and-loose bassist John Stirratt, this latest configuration of Wilco dropped into the bouncy midsection of “Break Your Heart.” Tweedy’s vocals were high in the mix, accentuating his reedy voice over the sharpshooter piano trills of Bach, as well as his own acoustic and electric guitar work.
In fact, it was Tweedy’s electric guitar work that seemed to unify the entire set. After a largely acoustic opening round, his eventual switch to electric guitar was a big event. Fromt hen on, Tweedy would switch between acoustic and electric guitars, eventually using the latter to tremendous rave-up effect during the two encores. His inspired playing brought to mind the guitar freakouts of Prince’s Revolution days, if Prince had had Lee Renaldo sensibilities. While Tweedy has always been an accomplished guitarist, his fragmented, distorted turns on Thursday night – in conjunction with the encores’ rollicking barroom anthems – seemed to unify the entire set as distinct Wilco music, wild, weird, and everything in between. While it’s frustrating at times not to see and hear Jay Bennett, Tweedy and Leroy Bach’s guitars didn’t replace him, but built a different kind of sound around where his solos would have been. And isn’t that what Wilco has been experimenting with over its entire career?
As a quartet, Wilco makes a lot of noise. But they do it with such efficiency, that you can’t help but fixate on what great musicians they actually are. The songs are great, of course. And Thursday night’s set was definitely a crowd-pleasing mix, heavy on the new but cognizant of the old faves. But watching the band interact live, it’s clear that they are poised to do something more than sell 155,000 copies of YHF (the approximate sales of Summerteeth). In a spectacular fluke of public relations and marketing, what should have been a daunting setback – your record being held up on the cusp of the biggest touring and promo push of your career – has galvanized Wilco in the eyes of critics and music fans alike as a band of survivors, continuing to make great music in the midst of adversity. And after all that is said, and you see them onstage, performing, you forget it. You watch Glenn Kotche’s arms move, watch as he plays the snare drum and ride cymbal with his right hand, while plinking a melody on the glockenspiel with his left. You realize you couldn’t do that. Ever. But that’s okay. Because Glenn can. And he’s in Wilco, making them what they are. It’s not the Jeff Tweedy Experience, but a quartet of guys who can’t see their destination, but are going to sound great getting there.
The full setlist, according to viachicago.org :
I am trying to break your heart
War on war
Shot in the arm
She’s a jar
Ashes of an american flag
When the roses bloom
(Jeff finally speaks)
Pot kettle black
Heavy metal drummer
How to fight loneliness
I’m the man who loves you
Not for the seasons
California stars (Introduced by Jeff as a Burl Ives song to sing along with)
Red eyed and blue— i got you