Wilco | 10.18 | Chicago

Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Chad Smith

Wilco :: 10.18.09 :: UIC Pavilion :: Chicago, IL

Wilco :: 10.18 :: Chicago
It has taken the hype surrounding Wilco's first show in the "huge arena" that is UIC Pavilion to make me realize how NOT huge this band actually is. It's easy to forget sometimes; music critics have been lavishing praise on the group since its second album (1996's Being There), WXRT DJ Marty Lennartz calls them "the greatest American band," and when Jeff Tweedy and company headlined the second night of Lollapalooza last year it seemed Wilco had grown capable of conquering the largest of stages. Still, I couldn't even find a taker for my extra ticket outside the sold-out Sunday night show, and there were quite a few seats in the room that never got filled. But, the music certainly had no trouble filling the space, and the band seemed as relaxed and excited as ever playing to a big hometown crowd.

However, I was surprised at the crowd's lack of enthusiasm. I know it was a Sunday night, but most people in the stands never stood up the entire show. It didn't seem to faze Wilco, though. The band fed off the enthusiasm of the diehards, clearly having a blast, but attuned to the mood swings of the songs. "A Shot In The Arm," the second song of the night, exuded the kind of raw energy most bands have to reserve for the finale. There was a ferocity in Tweedy's voice during the cathartic "nothing" mantra at the end of "Misunderstood" that was almost cruel, and the sickening regret of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" resonated as clearly in the fractured genius of Glenn Kotche's drumming as in the words. Nels Cline, as usual, offered the visual pyrotechnics of the night, but his playing was equally kinetic. His solo in "Impossible Germany" channeled the slippery melodicism of Jimmy Page circa 1969, yet he brings an experimental jazz sensibility to nearly every jam, making rock & roll turn its head and go, "Where have you been all my life?"

Jeff Tweedy - Wilco :: 10.18 :: Chicago
This isn't to say anybody in the band was overshadowed. Pat Sansone was a huge presence whether on keys or guitar, slaying note for note with Cline during the thrilling "Hoodoo Voodoo" romp in the encore. Mikael Jorgensen's organ was stunning on "I'll Fight" and "Hate It Here." John Stirratt took a turn at lead vocals for his "It's Just That Simple," the lone representative from Wilco's debut album, A.M. And nothing could've prepared you for the Tweedy-versus-Cline battle that ended "Handshake Drugs," a surge of pure potential energy, a conduit for the imagination of the audience to conjure the missing ambiance between the throttled guitars. These two got into some serious Neil Young/Danny Whitten territory at times - sometimes it's better without the sucker-punch payoff, kids.

Seven of eleven songs from this year's Wilco (The Album) made appearances, and the band opened with "Wilco (The Song)," possibly the most genuinely good-natured song Tweedy has ever written. Cline was freaking out instantly, jumping around and spastically slashing the air with his axe. Sinister masterpiece "Bull Black Nova" was an early highlight. "Enjoying the arena rock?" quipped Tweedy before "Deeper Down," and it seemed the crew had finally fine-tuned the sound in this difficult room, the subtle beauty of the song really sinking in. "Sonny Feeling" blazed far more brightly than on record, feeling like it could've come straight out of the late '90s, quintessential Wilco. As with all great live bands, the new material burst to new life, with the show prompting a total reconsideration of the new album.

Nels Cline - Wilco :: 10.18 :: Chicago
Nothing shook me harder than "One Wing." I'd first heard it in an embryonic state at Lollapalooza, where it ended in a brief, formless jam that gave way to "Spiders," altogether the highlight of the show. The recording on the new album hadn't really struck me as amazing, but they've perfected it live. Aching harmonies and just enough soaring interplay by the whole ensemble create a concise, yearning anthem that will break your heart.

It is Jeff Tweedy's ability to hide anguish inside a gorgeous tune that propels Wilco, but it takes a collective conviction to bring these tunes to life. So, in making a case for today's "greatest American band," you might think that Tweedy isn't the greatest songwriter or singer around, nor is any member of Wilco the indisputable king of his instrument. They don't even stand up as the best live band in the country. But, when you cross-reference all those factors, they certainly seem worthy of consideration.

Wilco :: 10.18.09 :: UIC Pavilion :: Chicago, IL
Wilco (The Song), A Shot In The Arm, Bull Black Nova, You Are My Face, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, One Wing, Misunderstood, At Least That's What You Said, Deeper Down, Impossible Germany, It's Just That Simple, I'll Fight, Handshake Drugs, Sonny Feeling, Jesus, Etc., Theologians, I'm Always In Love, Hate It Here, Walken, I'm The Man Who Loves You
Encore: You Never Know, Heavy Metal Drummer, Just A Kid, Kingpin, Monday, Outtasite (Outta Mind), Hoodoo Voodoo, I'm A Wheel

Wilco tour dates available here.

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