Wilco w/ Elliott Smith

Wilco w/ Elliott Smith

Rivera Theatre, Chicago


Johnny Loftus

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
Radio cure
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

1st encore:
Jesus, etc.
Hesitating beauty
California stars (Introduced by Jeff as a Burl Ives song to sing along with)

2nd encore:
Red eyed and blue— i got you
Outta sight

11 thoughts on “Wilco w/ Elliott Smith”

  1. Wow, that sounds like an amazing show. The set list is great and it sounds like they’re finding their new direction and getting comfortable in it.I’ve never seen them, but based on last fall’s reviews, I was thinking I may have missed their best shows. Now I’m excited to see them again. Any tour annoucements yet?

  2. I would like to see a kewl, summer, outdoor “feel the Wilco love”, kind of show at a venue kinda like where Radiohead played last summer.

  3. I’ve heard that was just a really special show (I assume you’re referring to the Chicago Radiohead show). I kick myself for not going, especially when I heard the live album they released.It would be fun to see a show at a big outdoor arena this year. I miss the days of my youth when I’d sneak alchohol in to Pine Knob in a plastic ziplock bag (they can’t feel it when they pat you down). I saw a ton of shows there in the early 90’s as a drunk teenager. Ahhh. . . the memories.

  4. Wilco played two big outdoor shows last summer here in Chicago. One in Grant Park and one at Soldier Field. Footage of the Grant Park show is supposed to be on the upcoming Wilco documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Download clips at http://www.wilcofilm.com

  5. though, any chance to catch a band like wilco at an outdoor venue of any kind is great, from all accounts i’ve heard hutchinson field in grant park is the place to see a band live. i heard nothing but overwhelmingly positive comments about the venue from all friends that went to see radiohead there last summer. here’s a review of the show from jim derogatis… http://www.jimdero.com/NewsPages2001/NewsAug2Radiohead.htmmaybe wilco will follow suit this year. we can only hope.

  6. Massive crowds, aren’t they, for these Grant Park shows? I have a Matthew Sweet bootleg from a summer Grant Park concert and at the encore he invites all the fans in the back to come up and fill the vacant seats in the front, makes a reference to the band looking like “performing fleas”!?

  7. well, grant park has two locations now for shows… the petrillo bandshell and now hutchison field. hutchison is set up to be more fan friendly… better backdrop (more interesting view of the city), better sound, closer to michigan ave. than lakeshore drive. i’m sure the bootleg of matthew sweet you’re talking about was a show from the petrillo bandshell, where they have a reserved seating area and a general admin. area. the shows at the petrillo bandshell are almost always freebies. actually, i can’t recall one where i’ve had to pay anything.

  8. This a poem for Elliott Smith I arranged using his own words, lyrics, song titles, etc. I didn’t know him but he touched me and I feel a tremendous loss. I wanted to do something. Thanks for everything, Elliott.




    : Where Were You When Elliott Died?



    : Lying here on the ground

    : waiting for sleep to overtake me

    : concrete hands pick up the telephone ring

    : quiet terror news

    : arrived too late

    : he was sick of it all

    : the endless stream of reminders

    : wanted everything to stop

    : acting under orders from above


    : What’s the matter, man

    : nothing’s wrong that wasn’t wrong before

    : you found another audience

    : why should you want any other

    : when you’re a world within a world

    : you can do what you want to

    : there’s no one to stop you

    : all your secret wishes

    : could right now be coming true


    : In my sleep tonight

    : mute memories start talking

    : I got a long way to go

    : cuz I don’t know what I am

    : grabbin’ on to whatever’s around

    : the moon is a light bulb breaking

    : every thought a ricochet

    : about to implode

    : nightmares become me

    : it’s so fucking clear

    : don’t think it’ll ever pass


    : I was about to throw it all away

    : make the same mistake twice

    : you beat it in me

    : that part of you

    : give the people

    : easy way out

    : something they understand

    : everything means nothing to me


    : I don’t need a remedy

    : won’t take your medicine

    : I want to hurt him

    : to give him pain

    : I just told the biggest lie

    : I’m so angry

    : my head is full of flames


    : I’ll go to the service

    : to pray and I’ll sing

    : follow me down

    : to the rose parade

    : here’s what you get

    : praises of my maker’s name

    : damaged bad at best

    : getting further away


    : What I used to be will pass

    : away and then you’ll see

    : I have become a silent movie

    : looking out on the substitute scene

    : for somebody’s arms

    : to wave away past harms

    : somebody that I used to know

    : I don’t want nobody else

    : throwing candy out to the crowd


    : So come on night

    : killing time won’t stop this crying

    : let’s just forget all about it

    : just walk away

    : slip out quiet

    : home to oblivion

    : I’m in love with the world

    : like the man in the moon

    : brushing off the nightmare


    : Whatever’s left of you

    : buried below

    : in the lost and found

    : you’re coming up roses

    : in a place meant to hide

    : stay with me

    : stay up all night

    : I’ll protect you

    : it’ll all be yesteryear soon

    : you can’t ask for more


    : Look at me

    : I’m talking to you

    : all I want now

    : is happiness

    : for you and me

    : keep you apart

    : separate from the rest

    : deep in my heart

    : where I like you the best

    : do you know who you’re talking to

    : say yes


    : Wish you gave me your number

    : wish I could call you today

    : just to hear a voice

    : riding high again

    : high on the sound

    : I’m never gonna know you now

    : but I’m gonna love you anyhow

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