Although I missed Wilco’s concert Monday at the Civic Opera House, the band’s website helpfully provides not just a set list, but also a pie chart showing how many songs Wilco played that night from each of its albums. From all reports, it was a pretty epic concert, and I sure wish I’d seen that encore with Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples teaming up with Wilco. The pie chart reveals that Wilco played songs from each of its albums except for the two Mermaid Avenue records, Wilco (The Album) and one of my favorites, A Ghost Is Born. One of my favorites, you may say with shock and amazement? Yes, although some folks slag that 2004 record, I insist it’s one of Wilco’s pinnacle achievements. The three studio albums since then have all been fine, with several great songs scattered across them, but they pale in comparison to Ghost and the few albums preceding it.
I did see Wilco’s second show in its five-concert Chicago run, Tuesday night’s (Dec. 13) gig at the Riveria, a venue that almost feels like home for Jeff Tweedy and his band. And this time, the band was in more of a Ghost Is Born mood. Shockingly, Wilco opened the show with “Less Than You Think” — the much-criticized Ghost track that meanders off into seemingly endless and tuneless electronic hum. (All that hum has never bothered me, but like everyone else I often skip past it; I think that was part of the idea.) In concert, the song began quietly, and the crowd hushed to hear Tweedy whispering the words into his microphone. The song dissolved into a drone that simulated the buzzing on the album, but with an actual beat pulsing through it. This was not a crowd-pleasing choice for an opening song, but Tweedy and his bandmates know just how fervent and devoted their fans are — and that some fans would appreciate or at least tolerate seeing the show begin with an unusual song.
The concert turned out to be an interesting and frequently surprising mix of songs from throughout Wilco’s huge and excellent catalogue. Wilco repeated only seven of the songs from the previous night’s show. Some regular concert favorites were omitted, such as “Jesus etc.” Some of the mellower recent songs weren’t all that exciting, but the band did a beautiful job of rendering them. This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. Is Wilco almost too good? At times, the band’s proficiency starts to sound like self-indulgent wankery, but just when I’m about to scoff at a guitar solo that goes slightly over the top, the band pulls off some subtle musical turn of phrase and I find myself surrendering to the experience.
Wilco continues to tinker with its old songs. Jarring outbursts of dissonance and drumming were layered on top of “Via Chicago,” somewhat awkwardly. “Reservations,” which started off the second encore, was more beautiful than ever, a lovely blend of Tweedy’s original acoustic version with the moody, atmospheric arrangement on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Just when it seemed like the concert was about to end, Wilco launched into its epic-length Ghost track, “Spiders (kidsmoke),” giving it a jazzier, funkier groove than past renditions, and giving Tweedy a chance to scrape out skronky solos on the electric guitar. (Nels Cline is Wilco’s resident guitar whiz, but I’d like to hear more of Tweedy’s rough-hewn solos.) Improbably, the song featured an audience clap-along before finally returning to its signature power chord riff. And then Wilco extended its marathon with one more track, not shown on the set list, “I’m a Wheel.” It felt like the band could play until morning, but Tweedy and the guys finally called it a night.
The evening started off with a strong opening set by Eleventh Dream Day, who have added Jim Elkington of the Zincs as a second guitarist. The five-piece lineup gave Rick Rizzo more space to play, and it bodes well for the future of this band with a long and illustrious past.
WILCO SET LIST: Less Than You Think / Art of Almost / I Might / Black Moon / Bull Black Nova / Side With the Seeds / Red-Eyed and Blue / I Got You (At the End of the Century) / Born Alone / You Are My Face / Open Mind / Kamera / I Must Be High / Always in Love / Capitol City / Handshake Drugs / Can’t Stand It / Dawned on Me / Hummingbird / ENCORE 1: Via Chicago / Whole Love / Late Greats / Walken / Just a Kid / Monday / Outta Mind (Outta Sight) / ENCORE 2: Reservations / Spiders (kidsmoke) / I’m a Wheel