12 Dec 2011: Civic Opera House Chicago
It’s been some time since I’ve really looked forward to going to a Wilco show. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s been a while since I’ve even been to a Wilco show. I’m not trying to say I haven’t enjoyed the last few shows I’ve seen. I guess, perhaps, they’ve become somewhat of a routine. Being a great band and having been for a long time, Wilco has made their rounds, and they are continually in the process of making music. Since I’m living in the city this band calls home, you can understand that I’ve caught a few performances. But walking past the Civic Opera House on Monday, I caught myself mid-grin looking forward to the show and predicting songs I hoped would be played. I mean, this is one of my bands; a band whose records have been playing in the background for a good part of my (still) young-adult life. And though it’s been somewhat of a general acceptance to talk down about Tweedy and crew post A Ghost Is Born and Yankee Hotel days, this new album, The Whole Love, is damn good. Fuck, “Art of Almost” is the best song that was written this year, in my opinion, and that’s how the album opens. It’s a record that you could rip apart, and each piece or song would easily fit unnoticed into the band’s back catalog.
This was the first night in Chicago, wrapping up the A-side of their American tour and kicking off their self-dubbed, “Incredible Shrinking Tour”: a five night run (with a couple days off) through the usual suspects of Chicago concert venues, funneling to smaller and smaller spaces. Finally, they would end with the 500-capacity Lincoln Hall to close out the week. As a fan, I loved the idea of Wilco touring through their home town, though it may have pissed off a few (here) who thought they beat the system after originally holding out for the Rivera show, only to have them announce three smaller venues the following weeks. Damn.
But tonight, we were starting at the beginning, the Civic Opera House. Yes, it was the biggest show of the run, but it’s at an opera house, so that’s pretty cool, right? Screw Lincoln Hall. I bet your crowd won’t roar like this opera house audience did when the house lights dimmed. And yes, my crowd this night did seem pretty primed. Winter was now overtaking our city, and with winter also came Wilco.
The quiet and rolling “One Sunday Morning” would open the night and showcase the still stunningly poetic way that Jeff Tweedy so often has with words. The band played below the large opera house stage, within a hanging wall of delicate white ropes, knotted and tied with bunches of fabric, snowing down from above the stage in a cascading fashion. Through the first two songs, the ropes hung softly above the band, slowly catching stray lights, but as the opening noise of “Art of Almost” rumbled through the opera house, the lights projected and bounced from the ropes, creating an elegant, and at times, chaotic backdrop. This was the song I was most excited to hear live, and what probably produced the pre-show perma-grin I may well have been sporting. The opening track off the new album might be the best song they’ve written. Just the way it hisses and grooves along in somewhat Radiohead-esque fashion, then pauses before expanding into a monster of guitar noise—courtesy of the soloing Nels Cline until it just bursts. It got my attention from the first listen, and just as I thought, it killed live. My friend noted that Tweedy hadn’t quite got the Thom Yorke dance down yet, as he hung back out of the light, near the drums, and just bounced to himself during the builds and in between moments of the song. But, wow, did that song have power. And by the end of Cline’s full-throttle, distorted and raw solo, those in attendance were in awe of a Wilco often forgotten in the alt-country haze (and hopefully ready to give this latest album another spin).
My three-song photo shoot was over, so I was able to settle back into my seat, grab a beer (Half Acre, brewed not far from the Wilco loft) and enjoy the show. After a back-to-back shot of the opening tracks off of Yankee Hotel and Being There the band settled into a steady groove with selections from across their catalog, all the while looking thankful to be home. Between songs, the acoustically fit opera house allowed Tweedy to converse with the drunk guys thirty rows back who must have seen the high society atmosphere of the opera house as the ideal place to confess their bro-love to the front man. And as the band gave a nod to how good the audience “smelled” this evening, (which, of course, only led to an even stronger aroma), everyone looked to be in a comfortable set of weekend shoes, though it was still only Monday.
As I looked around at the enthused and increasingly intoxicated crowd around me, I saw the complete Wilco demographic. The overly served middle-aged men mumbling the lyrics to songs like “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, as past relationships gone awry replayed in their heads. The groups of cute, post-Yankee twenty something’s, eyes closed, mouthing along to “Jesus, etc.” as they imagined a distant love not yet kindled. You could often catch a neighbor in any direction unexpectedly running into that lyric that makes them smile as they sing along to a song they’ve heard a hundred times. This is the kind of band Wilco has become, and this aspect of the band is especially evident in front of a Chicago crowd. This band has been there throughout our entire lives. Their songs tell stories of our pasts and have lyrics that bookmark the highs and lows of our own alt-rock soundtracks.
After an extended first encore, Tweedy and Co. reassembled for a last goodbye to an evening that was merely a hello. They let the “Jesus of Cool”, Nick Lowe, start if off with his own, “Cruel to be Kind”, as the band backed him. Lowe was closing out his run as opening support, and Tweedy gushed deservingly to an idol of his who he said lived up to every bit of the hype. Mavis Staples joined the stage to rising applause, but it wasn’t until a blow-out version of The Band’s “The Weight” that she caught stride and shook the house in a sold-out sing-a-long. Lowe, Tweedy and Staples all took a verse and the audience couldn’t help but shout out the chorus as the house lights came up and Monday came to an end in great fashion.
Reports from the rest of the week didn’t lack either, as the band dug deeper and played longer to the smaller and smaller crowds that made it to the other parts of the run. For me, it was great to spend the rest of the week checking the set lists (haven’t done that in a while) and revisiting songs that were played the previous nights in venues only bus rides away. The week belonged to a rock band, a rock band that belonged to a city. I’m just happy it was a city I belong to as well.