Wilco | The Riviera | 3/26

(also Yo La Tengo | Turner Hall | 3/25)

Tue Mar 28 2023

“Sorry about that, it was just an oversight.”

said Ira Kaplan on Saturday night to a sold-out Turner Hall crowd, his explanation for Yo La Tengo’s ten-year gap between Milwaukee appearances. He seemed to recall the band’s last Brew City show, also at Turner Hall, with genuine fondness, and he doesn’t strike me as the pandering type. I was still pondering this comment while waiting for Wilco to come onstage at the Riviera the next night. An oversight—as opposed to what, intentionally avoiding us? Whew! They’d welcomed Wilco onstage Friday night in Chicago for their encore and played a whole slew of covers that night, whereas Milwaukee featured a more traditional setlist. With some bands you prefer one approach or the other; with Yo La Tengo it doesn’t matter, because any time they cover a song, it becomes a Yo La Tengo song from then on.

They even covered a Wilco tune (make a note of it, “If I Ever Was A Child” is now a YLT song) Friday night. Now, would Wilco return the favor? Somehow I doubt it. Superficially, quiet Jeff Tweedy voice isn’t all that dissimilar to quiet Kaplan, yet the thought of Tweedy actually singing one of Kaplan’s songs…the mind balks. What if they were to invite YLT onstage for the encore tonight…? I thought, not realizing YLT were at First Ave, jamming with Alan Sparhawk. Wilco, on the last night of a three-night home stand, who needs guests?

If this had been a single tour stop there’s no way I would’ve gone; Wilco setlists tend to get bogged down with greatest hits these days and I’ve heard them too many times. They’d promised no repeats over these three nights, however, so any night you’d pick would probably feature its share of lesser-played nuggets. These are instances when you might look at the setlists from the first two nights going ‘D’OH!!’ every time you see one of your favorites; this is one reason I avoid that practice whenever possible. They opened this final night with “At Least That’s What You Said”, Tweedy’s guitar blazing right off the bat in his particularly Neil-Youngish fashion. This would set the tone for the night; they’d saved up a whole mess of their noisiest tunes and were determined to make eardrums bleed (although reports indicate that night one had been the actual loudest Wilco concert anyone’s ever heard).

The next song was “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” which prior to Sunday was basically dead to me. I hated the way Jeff had been goading the crowd into singing the guitar riff in recent years and I’d seen Wilco end too many sets with the song, it was becoming “Hey Jude”. I’d never seen it played this early in a set, nor with such ferocity that I can ever recall. Tweedy was merciless. Nels Cline was right there but I’d hardly noticed his presence yet.

The next song was “The Universe”, off Wilco’s epic latest album, CRUEL COUNTRY. It struck me that the song is pretty similar in spirit to the title track of Tengo’s new album, THIS STUPID WORLD, both seemingly born of a post-pandemic desperation for ways to hold onto gratitude amidst, y’know, everything. I keep writing about it too, you may have noticed. Am I ever going to shake the fear that this could all disappear again in the blink of an eye? Do I want to? Saturday night, YLT had opened their “quiet” set in Milwaukee with an appropriately quiet version of “This Stupid World” and I think it was even more effective than the loud version, one of those magic tricks Tengo frequently pull off that’s so gimmicky in the hands of almost any other band. Oo, UNPLUGGED, you’re so VERSATILE.

“The Universe” was one of only three songs from CRUEL COUNTRY that Wilco played Sunday night—“Mystery Binds” and “Tired Of Taking It Out On You” also provided quiet interludes later on in the set, while oddly enough, SKY BLUE SKY turned out to be the focus album of the night, six songs in total. “You Are My Face” came off like a forgotten classic early on. “Side With The Seeds” was another blistering Tweedy showcase. The late-set pairing of “Either Way” and “Hate It Here” served as a breather/wind-down following the pummeling we took from “Sunken Treasure” and “Laminated Cat”, and it was “On And On And On” that ended the encore, a truly unexpected and inspired pick following a fairly typical string of hits.

They did “Impossible Germany” too, which they do most nights, and it was received ecstatically by the crowd as always, although it was pedestrian compared to the version they played at The Sylvee last year. Cline took the spotlight as always but it wasn’t really his night to shine individually anyway; the most memorable thing he did was the bonkers little guitar solo inside of “Dawned On Me”, a song I am never excited to hear but let’s just say this was my favorite one ever. While I love few things more than a super shreddy Nels night, I have to say Sunday night was the single greatest Tweedy guitar performance I have ever witnessed. A lot of it was part of glorious full-band noise interludes, but some of it was individual wickedness as well.

It was not, however, on the level of Ira Kaplan’s Milwaukee performance. Ira to me is the bridge between Roger McGuinn’s guitar solos in “Eight Miles High” and the multi-instrumental mania of Zoogz Rift, speaking purely in terms of improv. He also ripped open the pants of time and space with his organ freakout in “Sudden Organ”, but he stuck mostly to guitar and led most of the night’s jams with it. And the thing is, the quieter moments from the show stick out in my memory just as sharply, like the shall-we-say ironically not-urgent “Until It Happens”, and the James McNew-sung “Black Flowers” (which could easily be mistaken for a Daniel Johnston tune), or Georgia Hubley singing atop the lush haze of “Miles Away” to close the first set, or the Flamin’ Groovies tearjerker “You Tore Me Down” that closed the encore. There’s just no other band with a similar package of multitalents.

The truth is if they would add maybe four hours onto the Earth day, Yo La Tengo would be one of the first bands I’d add to my obsession list. But I couldn’t say which songs they played in Milwaukee were fan faves or if any of the covers they played held a particular significance. I only know it was easily the best concert I’ve been to this year and I wonder when a better one will come to Milwaukee. (note: No, I was not at the Springsteen show.) Sunday night also stacked up as one of my favorite Wilco shows in recent memory. Following directly after YLT, though, it revealed something I’d been resisting: there are no surprises left there. Although songs and arrangements do change from tour to tour, Wilco’s only real options for getting outside the song are guitar solos, or else everybody hitting the self-destruct button and getting chaotically loud, for precisely THIS many measures. I know Jeff will continue to write great songs; CRUEL COUNTRY showcased some of the best ones he’s ever written. But Wilco are entrenched in their formula as a live band, and I can’t imagine going out of my way to see them any more. It’s my own fault; I got to know them too well!

One thing I didn’t see coming, though, preceded the set-closer, a predictable singalong, “Jesus, Etc.” Jeff introduced it and told the crowd they’d be saying goodnight after it was done, provoking a smattering of BOOs. The banter had been paltry up ‘til this point but Jeff now let loose, egging the entire crowd on into a hearty BOOing and soaking it in. We gleefully repeated this AFTER “Jesus” as the band left the stage, and it carried on even as the band returned for the encore. “I don’t think we should do that any more,” said Tweedy, a ‘pretense’ of insecurity.

Yo La Tengo, on the other hand, remain unpredictable as ever. I’ll wager that that holds up even amongst their most dedicated fans. It’s only a part of what put Saturday’s show into the stratosphere, though. Something about that performance tipped me into a new level of fandom. What a miracle that a band pushing 40 years in business can still do such a thing, that I managed to not miss the boat entirely on Tengo. We don’t have anybody cool enough in Milwaukee to hop onstage with them; as in many other ways, Wisconsin is an island of lameness surrounded by more happenin’ places. Occasionally, we can even be grateful for that.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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