Wilco does the arena-rock thing

After years and years of seeing concerts in Chicago, I had never actually gone to a show at UIC Pavilion until Sunday night, when Wilco played the first of two nights at the arena. I would so much rather see concerts at a small venue than some big concrete dome designed for sports events. But, alas, there are times when the bands you like become popular — wait, that’s a good thing, right? And then it no longer becomes possible to see the bands inside little rooms the size of Schubas. So you end up in a crowd of thousands of people inside a big concrete dome where the music echoes off the walls like the noise of passing airplanes. But then there can be moments when you feel a sense of awe that all these people around you like that music that you like, too. Maybe you even get a feeling of community.

This week, Wilco moved up to its biggest venue yet in Chicago (unless you count their two Lollapalooza performances). I’d prefer seeing Wilco in one of the big downtown theaters like the Chicago or Auditorium, but this time, they were in the less cozy confines of UIC. And, well, they put on a pretty great show Sunday night, despite the lackluster surroundings. Of course, I never doubted that Wilco was capable of putting on a great arena show, since this versatile, virtuoso band seems to be capable of doing just about anything leader Jeff Tweedy asks of it, from straight-ahead roots rock to stranger and more experimental art rock.

This lineup of Wilco, which has been steady for a few years now, sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them Sunday night. As these six musicians played songs from throughout the Wilco catalogue — including many songs originally played by different Wilco lineups — they made it all sound like one coherent body of work. The clattering curiosities in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” were still there, but the noise that guitarist Nels Cline was making during that song made it sound more like something that today’s Wilco would record rather than a remnant from a previous Wilco era.

Cline was on fire Sunday night. Within seconds after the band came onstage and began playing the first song of the night, “Wilco (The Song),” Cline was flailing around wildly with his guitar like a maniac. And he kept it up during the second song, “A Shot in the Arm.” It seemed more like the frenzied climax of a concert than the opening. What got into this guy? It’s been clear that Cline is a very talented guitarist, who can run rings around most people, since he joined Wilco, but on Sunday night, he combined that virtuosity with a high level of passion and energy.

The rest of the band sounded great, too, of course. Wilco is, if nothing else, a true ensemble of six musicians who know how to blend their sounds together into a brilliant whole. As usual, Wilco played a sample of songs from throughout its albums. It was nice to see John Stirratt taking over lead vocals for the rarely played A.M. song “It’s Just That Simple,” and I was glad to hear a few songs from the album I love that a lot of other people dismiss, A Ghost Is Born. Wilco even dug out one obscurity, the bouncy ditty “Just a Kid,” from the soundtrack to The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

Tweedy asked the crowd to sing the lyrics to “Jesus etc.” and stepped away from the mike for virutally the entire song, and the crowd happily complied. The encore included a surprisingly long string of songs from Being There: “Kingpin,” “Monday,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” “Hoodoo Voodoo.” And then, just when it seemed like the show had ended after some 2 hours and 15 minutes, the band launched into one more song, the lively, absurd “I’m a Wheel.”

At one point during the show, Tweedy asked, “Having a good time? Enjoying the arena rock?” The answer was: Yes. But I’d still rather see Wilco somewhere other than an arena.

Set list:
Wilco (the Song) / A Shot in the Arm / Bull Black Nova / You Are My Face / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / One Wing / Misunderstood / At Least That’s What You Said / Deeper Down / Impossible Germany / It’s Just That Simple / I’ll Fight / Handshake Drugs / Sunny Feeling / Jesus etc. / Theologians / I’m Always in Love / Hate It Here / Walken / I’m the Man Who Loves You / ENCORE: You Never Know / Heavy Metal Drummer / Just a Kid / Kingpin / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind) / Hoodoo Voodoo / I’m a Wheel

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