Monday night at the Civic Opera House, Wilco kicked off their sold out, five night run of December shows in Chicago in a grand fashion fitting of the venue with a little help from friends like Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples...
(Click HERE for a review of night three in Chicago at the Vic Theatre)
In February of 2008, Wilco dug deep in its catalog and took over Uptown with a sold out, five night stand at the Riviera Theatre.
It was such a cool idea and I had always hoped the band would revisit it. Fast forward to December of 2011 where the band not only arrived home in Chicago for a five night residency but upped the anti considerably selling out five shows at the Civic Opera House, Riviera Theatre, Vic Theatre, Metro and Lincoln Hall.
Monday night saw the band in not only its largest venue but also its nicest (a fact the band made light of several times during their "night at the opera"). "These are all opera songs!" joked frontman Jeff Tweedy early on.
But before Wilco got their week at home started, it was actually tourmate Nick Lowe who got things rolling on his final night on this tour with Wilco.
To me, Lowe has one of the more unique voices in rock. At sixty two years of age it has lost very little of its power and its range was on full display Monday: at its most sugary sweet on an appropriate cover of Elvis Costello's "Alison," softest and most delicate on "I Read A Lot," and most well known on both "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" and "Cruel to be Kind" (more on this later).
Lowe called "I Read A Lot" (from his September release The Old Magic) "a risky choice" that needed "to be played in such a beautiful room" and offered fond memories of his days playing Park West as a member of Rockpile leading in to "When I Write the Book." If the former was indeed a risk, it was one that paid off in spades while the entirety of Lowe's opening set acted as a pop tutorial from one of the genre's masters.
Wilco hit the stage for a two hour and fifteen minute show that split up the setlist nicely amongst their studio albums (eight songs from The Whole Love, seven from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, three from Being There, two each from Sky Blue Sky and Summerteeth, and one each from A.M. and Wilco (The Album). No b-sides, no Mermaid Avenue and nothing from A Ghost Is Born... but they've got the better part of a week to get to all that).
What continues to strike me the more I see this band live (this was the tenth time at venues ranging anywhere from the Abbey Pub to First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre across various band lineups), is how solid this particular version of the band has become. Having now performed together live since 2005 and on three studio albums, it has easily become the band's most stable lineup (a fact that is evident in concert).
Starting the evening with three songs from September's The Whole Love in the first four songs of the set (they ended up playing eight of a possible twelve from the album) showed how confident the band is in its new material.. and with good reason. The harmonies are simply the best the band has ever performed (Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone sounded outstanding together throughout the evening).
Beginning the set with all twelve minutes of "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" and moving to "Poor Places" (from 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), the band whipped up a contrast in sound that was stunning as they moved from the sweet guitar intermingling of Tweedy and Nels Cline on the former to a sonic soundscape of distortion and noise whipped up by multi-instrumentalists Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone with bombastic drummer Glenn Kotche to close out the latter. The band's ability to move from calm to storm so deftly is amazing and is a perfect example of just how tight this lineup has become.
Since 2005's live document Kicking Television, the frenetic, often spastic playing of lead guitarist Nels Cline (nobody in rock has better guitar face) has become paramount to the band's sound culminating in a ferocity on The Whole Love that the band's studio albums have sometimes lacked. "Art of Almost" was the evening's best example of this as it ended in one of Cline's finest solos of the evening.
But as has become a constant in the live setting, his best solo was actually on "Impossible Germany." The song cooks on album too but live, Cline needs to be seen to be believed. And apparently people are starting to take notice as Rolling Stone recently named him to their list of "100 Greatest Guitarists."
"A Shot in the Arm" was amongst the evening's best while "Candyfloss" (complete with a fitting operatic vocal from Sansone), "Far, Far Away" and "Misunderstood" were welcome deep cuts. Tweedy stepped out for a rare solo on "I'm the Man Who Loves You" (one of the best I've seen him pull out live... and it should be noted that he did it with the aid of a WILCO "Land of Lincoln" license plate handed to him by someone in the audience). "That was my best solo EVER!" he remarked.
Embracing their December residency, the band augmented "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" with extra members on instrumentation like sleigh bells, performing amongst falling "snow" for a rendition of the bouncy track that took a detour through "Jingle Bells" en route to closing the main set.
But it was the encore that took this show from great to special. As Tweedy explained to the crowd what having Nick Lowe (his "hero") on tour meant to him and the band, Nick joined the band onstage for a traipse through his classic "Cruel to Be Kind." Having performed his opening set solo acoustic, it was a real treat to get a full band rendition of one of Nick Lowe's best (a lineup Tweedy jokingly referred to as WilcLowe).
As I thought to myself how that was one of the coolest concert moments that I had seen in 2011, Wilco welcomed to the stage another guest: Mavis Staples. Now I've seen Mavis twice and each time I thought to myself at some point "It would be really cool if Jeff Tweedy joined her" (like he did at Lollapalooza in 2010).
So of course, the time that thought doesn't cross my mind, out walks Mavis to jam with Wilco.
Mavis joined the band for the Tweedy-penned title track off her 2010 Grammy nominated album You Are Not Alone. As a friend of mine said following the show, "That gave me chills." Every time I've seen Mavis perform that song, her impassioned vocals evoke an urgency that transcends her seventy-two years and this was no different. The crowd was going crazy and inside such a gorgeous venue it really was a moment that's not going to be duplicated.
As I sunk further into my thoughts, trying to make sense of what I had just seen, eventually coming to the conclusion that that was a cool way to end a show, the band called Nick Lowe back out to join them and Mavis.
Because really, what would any show involving Mavis Staples be without referencing her role in The Last Waltz? If you have the opportunity to get Mavis Staples to belt out "The Weight"... well, by God I think you have to take it! No matter how many times I see her live, it never ceases to amaze me how Mavis Staples manages to perform with a seeming sense of honesty and authenticity amidst an energy that's otherworldly.
When all was said and done Monday night... Maybe it was the license plate, maybe it was the fake snow... I suppose it may even have been the onstage company of rock royalty... but I've never seen Wilco look as happy on a stage as they did at the Civic Opera House.
An unpredictable and triumphant success, I can't even begin to imagine what else the band has in store for the rest of this residency.
*** Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts on any of the five shows in the "comments" section below. Thanks! ***
Catch Wilco live this week as they finish up their 2011, December, Chicago residency
Tuesday, December 13th
8PM at the Riviera Theatre. 18+
(with special guest Eleventh Dream Day)
2 ticket limit, SOLD OUT
Thursday, December 15th
8PM at the Vic Theatre. 18+
(with special guests Jon Langford & Skull Orchard)
Friday, December 16th
8PM at Metro. 18+
(with special guests The Paulina Hollers)
2 ticket limit, will-call only, SOLD OUT
_______________________________________________________________Sunday, Sunday, December 18th
8PM at Lincoln Hall. 18+
A special benefit for Inspiration Corporation
(with special guest Fred Armisen)
2 ticket limit, will-call only, SOLD OUT
Filed under: Concert Reviews
Tags: Civic Opera House, December Residency, Eleventh Dream Day, Fred Armisen, Glenn Kotche, Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Jon Langford, Lincoln Hall, Mavis Staples, Metro, Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline, Nick Lowe, Pat Sansone, Riviera Theatre, The Paulina Hollers, The Staples Singers, Vic Theatre, Wilco, Winter Residency 2011