By Mark Guarino
Five nights, over 12 hours, 160 songs spanning eight albums across 13 years: Such a by-the-numbers blowout is usually the domain of bands long settled into the garden patch of nostalgia tours meant for managing Mediterranean villas and child custody litigators. Wilco still has time but likely not soon. A residency before a hometown crowd in Chicago may be billed as a chance to comb through every untended song in the band’s back catalog, but by the fifth night it is evident the exercise is less about polishing the oldies than it is illustrating how much the band’s current incarnation can thread both ends of Wilco’s well-documented evolution, from shaggy country rock band to somber electro-rock ensemble.
In the setting of the Rivera Theater, a former movie palace from the 1920’s, Jeff Tweedy’s songs match the elegant decay of the peeling walls and fading flora: Despite the rough edges and grimy discolor of recent albums, tuneful melodies keep beaming through. Nowhere is that more evident than a reworked version of Via Chicago, played three of the five nights, in which the band sabotages the song’s simple melody with berserk tantrums while Tweedy walks it steadfastly through, strumming quietly on his acoustic guitar.
Songs are similarly pushed to extremes. Early period songs long discarded from band setlists sound newly padded thanks to players such as Nels Cline, the esoteric guitarist who ably shades harvest color to country favorites but becomes more essential injecting tormented, needle-sharp solos. He and drummer Glenn Kotche are relentless when it comes to shifting dynamics and using empty space for dramatic effect. Their instincts and nimble playing rejuvenates back catalog gems — A Shot in the Arm, Box Full of Letters, Pot Kettle Black, Red-Eyed and Blue, Too Far Apart — while also turning more recent songs — Late Greats, Handshake Drugs, Spiders (Kidsmoke) — into jams that spiral toward hypnotic heights.
The residency’s mission to cover every b-side, rarity and dubious deep track separate long-time fans from casual latecomers. Each night, the former are rewarded with surprises: Just a Kid, manic pop from the SpongeBob Squarepants soundtrack, The Thanks I Get, a b-side licensed for a Volkswagen commercial, Airline to Heaven, psychedelic folk from the Mermaid Avenue albums, Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard, heard mostly at Tweedy solo shows, Leave Me (Like You Found Me) and Dash 7 from Sky Blue Sky and A.M. respectively but never performed live and I Thought I Held You, a throwaway from the band’s 1995 debut Tweedy introduces as “dogshit … worst song ever.”
Guest Andrew Bird serves as the band’s journeyman fiddler-whistler, handily joining Tweedy in a whistling duel on Red-Eyed and Blue and lending elegant textures to Jesus Etc. and Hummingbird. Also appearing each night is a three-person horn section featuring saxophonist Paul Mertens, the arranger and bandleader for Brian Wilson’s rejuvenated Pet Sounds and Smile projects. The horns help blast Monday to the rafters but transition newer songs like Walken, What Light and Hate It Here into Stax-era Southern R&B.
Tweedy separates each night into two sets — “just like the (Grateful) Dead” — making the shows about an hour longer than usual. The flood of music reveals a few sore spots along the way, from the laconic mood of Either Way from Sky Blue Sky to minor throwaways like Cars Can’t Escape. After steamrolling through so much personnel, Wilco v.2008 is now a dutiful ensemble, which means that despite the remarkable musicianship, the playing at times becomes a bit too methodical, the rough edges more studied than naturally wrought.
When it comes time, on the final night, to finally play the ending 12-minute noise collage from Less Than You Think, each player tweaks knobs, wiggles pedals, pounds keyboards and begs droning feedback, but it is choreographed chaos and ultimately an underwhelming exercise.
The band’s secret weapon, night after night, is more organic: bassist John Stirratt, Wilco’s only other original member besides Tweedy. Despite the obvious modesty, Stirratt is the quiet driver behind this band — his bright harmonies punch up the pop sensibilities and by playing the bass like a lead instrument, he makes each song swing. Plus, no song of the five nights receives a more energetic audience response than It’s Just That Simple, the only song in the band’s catalog that features his lead vocal.
By the last night, Wilco is less tired than energized. Tweedy promises a second residency next winter but he’s not done with this one yet: He, Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone form a three-guitar front to chase rock glory by reveling in classic conventions — windmill flourishes, barking horns, manic soloing. The night opens with a single declaration —“I was maimed by rock and roll,” Tweedy sings on Sunken Treasure, slashed by detuned chords, crashing percussion, and sawing guitars, an orchestration of ugliness from a band that obviously feels the same way.