In mid-February, Wilco played 5 shows in 6 nights in front of a hometown audience at Chicago's historic Riviera Theatre. Billed as the "Wilco Winter Residency 2008," five-night passes sold out in less than 2 minutes for what arguably could have been the biggest concert event to hit Chicago since The Smashing Pumpkins played their final show in December of 2000. Wilco promised to play every song from their six studio albums over five nights, as well as various B-sides and tracks off of the Mermaid Avenuecollaborations with Billy Bragg – and the band delivered in a big way.
After missing the first show that played most of Sky Blue SkyI was fortunate to attend the second and third shows of the series that played more than half of the band's catalog from their first two albums, A.M. and Being There. Night 2 opened with Jeff Tweedy quietly strumming "Someone Else's Song" from Being There(and singing an octave higher than the album version), while the full band joined after the first verse. The band smiled throughout the first song and received a loud and raucous welcome from the hometown crowd. Wilco switched gears to A Ghost is Born's "Handshake Drugs." While I never have been a big fan of the song, it sounds completely different live – and so much better. Glenn Kotche's drums and Nels Cline's ridiculous lead guitar licks drove the song into one of the night's surprise highlights. Cline brings an incredible amount of experience and a great deal of versatility to the live shows. He is, without a doubt, one of the premiere lead guitarists of the modern era. Bold statement, I know – but those who have seen him live would certainly agree. At times while he solos, Cline plays so hard that his right hand becomes blurry – something I wouldn't believe unless I saw it with my own eyes.
The first surprise came just a few songs into the set with "Via Chicago," a song many had predicted would be the closing song on the fifth and final night. After dusting off a solid version of "Hotel Arizona," which surprisingly sounded good live, Wilco fans were treated to an extremely rare occurrence – Tweedy grabbed the bass while fellow original member & bassist John Stirratt picked up an acoustic guitar and belted out "It's Just That Simple" from A.M.. It was just the fifth time Wilco has played the song since 1995. The crowd roared & thanked him with an electric ovation and, in what proved to be a beautiful moment in the night, Tweedy gave Stirratt time to receive the extended ovation, smiled, & said, "I think that's overdue, John."
After delving into Summerteeth with a lively version of "When You Wake Up Feeling Old," fans were treated to fellow Chicagoan violinist/whistler extraordinaire Andrew Bird joining the band for a fantastic rendition of "Jesus, Etc." The crowd's singing echoed nicely along with Bird's violin and Mikael Jorgensen's soulful keyboards. Bird stood in for roughly eight songs on Night II. Wilco dug deep into the archives and played phenomenal live versions of the country-based "Forget the Flowers," "Red Eyed & Blue," "I Got You," the rare Yankee Hotel Foxtrotouttake "Magazine Called Sunset," a loud electric sing-along"Casino Queen," and "Dreamer in My Dreams." Bird even appeared onstage for the dainty little A.M. ballad, "Dash 7," which just so happened to be the first ever live performance of the song. When the band walked off closing with "The Lonely 1," the house lights went up and the roadies started to pack up the equipment. "Peaches" by The Presidents of the United States of America played on the PA system, but the crowd did not leave! Instead, all 2,000+ people stayed standing, cheering wildly and clapping. After a few minutes, "Peaches" faded, the lights turned off, and the band came back & finished with "ELT" from Summerteeth and a high-energy version of "Hoodoo Voodoo" from Mermaid Avenue. It was an emotionally charged moment for all, and the band was clearly touched by their loyal fans graciousness.
The first half of Night 3's set showed why they are one of today's most talented and versatile bands by shifting from the the folk ballad "Remember the Mountain Bed" to the alt-country, twangy "Hesitating Beauty," "That's Not the Issue" led by Cline's country licks, "You Are My Face," and an electric version of YHF's "Kamera." One of my personal highlights was "Remember the Mountain Bed" from Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2 with Andrew Bird. Mountain Bed has been a staple at Tweedy's solo shows, but it is rarely played with the full band. Cline & Bird helped carry the song by trading licks on slide guitar and violin, as an inspired Tweedy sang most of the Woody Guthrie lyrics with his eyes closed. Also, I was pleasantly surprised as to how good the songs from Sky Blue Sky sounded – almost as if they were meant to be played live (Hate it Here, Side with the Seeds, and Walken – in particular). I was mostly looking forward to hearing the old Wilco classics from the early days, but I was really impressed by the SBStracks, and especially blown away by Cline-Tweedy-Pat Sansone trading guitar licks during "Impossible Germany." Night 3's finish was similar to Night 2 – the band walked off, the lights came on, "Peaches" played, the crowd went nuts, and the band returned minutes later and rocked out to a horns-driven "Can't Stand It" and "Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway
By my count, of the 160 songs Wilco played during the 5 night Winter Residency series, 96 different songs were played (some were repeated). This is more than just an impressive statistic. It's a testament to Wilco's versatility and ability to diversify their catalog. While only 2 members of the original band remain, their current lineup is by far the strongest – both in the recording studio and live. It's rare to see a band these days play six consecutive songs from six different albums – each one sounding different, but just right. In the end, the Winter Residency series showed that even thirteen years after the release of A.M., Wilco is as strong and dedicated as they have ever been. Hopefully, Tweedy holds true to his promise that they'll "do this again next year."
- Cherry Ghost