Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Wilco: 19 October 2009 – UIC Pavilion, Chicago

Last week was Wilco’s homecoming, the capstone to their North American tour if you will. The two Chicago shows were the first shows the band had played here since the release of their latest,Wilco (the album). They were also the climax of their US tour and nothing short of epic.

Chicagoans tend to be passionate, devoted, and often defensive about all things Chicago–especially when it comes to music. Wilco is amongst the many popular rock acts to spawn from the city but they are, more or less, the city’s preeminent group. Their stature alone was intimidating in attempting to write the perfect, if not acceptable, review for a truly stellar show.

Taking the stage to the Price is Right theme song prompted a welcoming eruption from the crowd. The band, humble and awkward in the shadows of their music, made few attempts to acknowledge their fans, with the exception of a nod and wave here and there. Beginning with “Via Chicago” got the evening off on the quiet side, calming the audience into a deep sway and sing along. In the midst of the tune’s pick-up, guitarist Nels Cline spontaneously deviated from the song, embellishing with guitar god licks. Key player Mikael Jorgensen followed his freakout with one of his own, which then prompted drummer Glenn Kotche to follow suit. The chain reaction completely inverted the feel and pace of “Via Chicago,” catching the audience off guard and stimulating them.

It wasn’t until the seventh song, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” that lead vocalist Jeff Tweedy acknowledged the audience. He gave his praise, hinted at setlist possibilities, and pointed out familiar faces from the night before. He also flattered us by claiming to recognize the current crowd’s superior coolness. (The real test of the audience’s coolness was when Tweedy flung a shiny new vinyl copy of A.M. into the floor seats, without a massive fight erupting.)

The setlist, as extensive as it was safe, featured at least one song from each Wilco record. Songs mostly followed their recordings, minus some embellished feedback and distortion here and there, enabling the night to become one massive sing-along–of which “Jesus, Etc.” was the most impressive, with Mr. Tweedy conducting the crowd and mouthing the lyrics like a middle school choir director. Predictably, we all passed his test, confirmed by a thumbs up sign at the end. (Aapparently he did the same thing the night before.)

“Can’t Stand It” strongly featured Jorgensen’s piano lines as they became the center of the song, dominating with movement, style and conviction. After the the song, though, the band’s sound went astray as the suspense of what was to come increased: Kotche utilizing a gong that was perched behind his drum kit; tambourine shakes from multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. As Kotche put the gong to rest, however, Tweedy was prompted to stop his accompanying dramatics and playfully lecture Kotche for more gong. Instead, with pure stamina, Kotche balanced over his drums, ignored Tweedy’s request, and jumped in the air, landing on his stool in perfect time for “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” The sequence was truly electrifying, seemingly launching the band into arena rock mode.

By encore time Tweedy had the audience eating out of his hand, waving and clapping their hands at his command. “Clapping is good for your arms and for your soul!” he shouted.

The two-and-a-half hour, 29-song set list concluded with some of Wilco’s seminal twang, bassist John Stirratt taking the lead with “Casino Queen.” He kept the arena pumped right through the transition to “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” Leaving the show there was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction, excitement, and pride in the air. Hopefully it will not be long before Wilco returns home and dazzles Chicago all over again.