Wilco: Riverside Theater, 12/9/11

Posted 12/13/2011 by cal

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How was the Wilco show last Friday, everyone’s wondering? It was really, really good. But you knew that already, right? Pretty rare that the band plays a less-than-great show these days. In its aftermath, I’ve been pondering what the hell to write about it that would be different from what I’ve written about the other times I've seen Wilco. In fact, what was different about it? Yeah, they played a bunch of songs from The Whole Love, obviously, but that can’t be it. The real question is: was it better or worse than the other Wilco shows I’ve seen?

Okay, let’s go back to my first Wilco show: Bonnaroo ‘04. Have I mentioned I don’t really recall that set? It’s a lot easier to conjure up impressions and emotions from that weekend than it is to remember--much less critically assess--actual music, especially since I didn’t really know much Wilco music at that point besides “I’m Always In Love”.

So let’s skip ahead to Lollapalooza ’08, another festival set, but this one was a headliner, and a hometowner. This was a balls-out spectacle of a show, right down to the band’s snazzy tailored suits and finale with the Total Pros horn section, forever ruining the ever-popular “Monday”>”Outtasite” punch for me from that point on. There was more out-there improv at this show than any other Wilco show I’ve seen; the not-fully-formed “One Wing” and “Spiders” were enough to pretty much bowl me over, not to mention that first experience of “A Shot In The Arm” live. There was nothing going on at the Riverside that compared, but I don’t know if I can say this abbreviated, super-celebratory set was the best one I’ve seen.

Then there was UIC Pavilion in ’09, another hometown show for Wilco, but one for which I couldn’t even give away my extra ticket at the door. The sound was a bit sub-par, and the crowd was surprisingly mellow, but the show was pretty epic, as long as you were into Wilco (The Album), which I definitely was. But it was kind of a greatest-hits show, which last week’s show was certainly not; the band has been pulling out quite a few rarities on this tour, some every night and some only here and there, so it was a real thrill to hear songs like “Poor Places” and “Far, Far Away” and “War On War” and “Someday Soon” at the Riverside. Maybe it has dawned on Jeff Tweedy that his band was veering dangerously close to U2 territory--having a handful of tunes that must be played at every show. Yet I’m maybe a little ashamed to admit that not hearing “A Shot In The Arm” for the first time left me feeling a little incomplete.

At least until Friday, my favorite Wilco show had to be the Overture Center show from February of last year. Despite a 99% seated crowd (long live the one-percenters!), this show was one of the most pristine-sounding, immaculately-played shows I’ve ever seen by any band, one of those shows that would’ve made a brilliant live album in its entirety. Amazing setlist; I got to hear two of my favorite Summerteeth tunes live for the first time, plus a killer cover of Neil Young’s “Broken Arrow” and still the only Wilco show I’ve seen that didn’t feature “Monday”>”Outtasite” at the end. Perfection. Still…

Last weekend at the Riverside, the crowd (lower level, at least) was on its feet from note one, rapt and rapturous; hands down the best Wilco crowd I’ve ever been a part of. The sound was again crystal clear. I won’t say the show sold me completely on the new album, but they played all the songs I love from it, and as expected, they were better live. “One Sunday Morning”, the perfect opener and best song on Whole Love, came off as Tweedy’s new personal confessional/mission statement, more epic and beautiful than ever before. “Art Of Almost” loses a bit of impact when you already know that breakneck jam at the end is coming, but still, it was awesome. “I Might” was even catchier than on the album, the swirling descent at the end of “Born Alone” was eviler, “Capitol City” was spacier and way more intense. (“Dawned On Me” and “Whole Love” were still filler.) The band leaned more heavily on feedback and noise than usual, not so much as a crutch like a lot of indie bands, more like an easel; maybe some day it will be a canvass, but it provided some of the night's most intense moments. Finale of “Cruel To Be Kind” with Nick Lowe: ‘nuff said.

Overall it was just a slightly weirder, more dynamic, less perfect Wilco than I’d seen before, perhaps hearkening back somewhat to the early days. I could’ve come away pining for all the songs I wished they’d played (for the love of God, bring back “Hotel Arizona” and “Sunken Treasure”!!!), but instead I was nebulously moved, a rarity when you feel like you know a band really well. And even though the psycho Moog of Jay Bennett will always be lacking, at least this time Nels Cline ripped that essential “Always In Love” melody on his guitar for the set-closer, and that pretty much made it for me. It may or may not go down as my favorite Wilco show ever, but it was probably the best show I saw in Milwaukee this year.

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