2006 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Wilco Gives Thanks To Fans With New Songs

Chicago Band Wows On Thanksgiving Eve

MADISON, Wis. — If reality-show cameras offered us unfettered access to the Thanksgiving dinner table of Chicago rock combo Wilco, we would probably hear “our devoted fans” listed among those that they’re most thankful for.

Photo: Nonesuch Records

Photo: Nonesuch Records

That appreciation was evident during the band’s concert on Wednesday — Thanksgiving eve — at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wis. The two-hour performance was a special show that gave the group an opportunity to pay back their fans for their loyalty.

The timing of the concert was unexpected. The group’s multi-year tour wound down last month and the reason for re-starting Wilco’s engines again on Wednesday is a mystery. The band is reportedly recording its next album and the show might have been a warm-up for a two-night stand in the group’s homebase of Chicago during the long weekend.

But it’s also possible these shows were a final thank you to the dedicated, who have supported the band through tumultuous times, through bouts of band-member musical chairs, stylistic transformations, substance abuse meltdowns and record label drama. All the while, the group ascended to become one of alternative rock’s few remaining bulwarks. As band frontman Jeff Tweedy rallied the crowd during Wednesday’s performance, “This is our home turf. This is part of our region.”

Tweedy and company charmed the adoring audience with renditions of old favorites, but the sextet also paid them the special compliment of previewing several new songs. Many of the new tracks have peppered the group’s shows in recent months, but a full quarter of the 22-song set was reserved for this night. It gave the band a friendly environment to both try out new material and offer an unusual glimpse of the creative birthing process. This idea was in the air as bassist John Stirratt’s first child was born only the night before.

“We were up really late boiling water,” Tweedy joked, as he tried to explain away their rustiness.

If the band was shaking out musical cobwebs, it wasn’t obvious. There was a sense of routine in the delivery of a few songs. Old chestnuts like “Shot in the Arm” or “War On War” had changed little during the marathon touring and Tweedy’s performances occasionally appeared perfunctory, but he could also buckle down with glowering intensity. During “Shot In The Arm,” the road weariness on Tweedy’s elfin face looked increasingly demented as he howled, “There’s something in my veins/Bloodier than blood.”

Life on the road seems to have intensified the group’s desire to enhance the songs with an orchestra of sounds, everything from an army of chimes to computer effects. The band has also steadily moved more in the direction of prog-rock with many songs featuring extended guitar workouts, raising the profile of guitarist Nels Cline considerably.

Wilco has two multi-instrumental keyboardists, but Cline really changed the dimensions of the songs. He remade the glorious, former piano ditty “Theologians” into a slice of twin-guitar rock. Cline’s guttural slide guitar on “Kingpin” was as funky as the clavinet heard on the recorded version. Similarly, Cline’s lap steel playing expanded on the violin counter melody on “Jesus, Etc.,” making it one of the night’s clear highlights. Cline also took a number of extended solos. Each time, his hands would seize up and become rigid as he furiously scraped the strings.

Tweedy demonstrated his own six-string adeptness at folk guitar with pristine plucking on “Muzzle of Bees” and spry chord changes on “Airline To Heaven.” The latter had the audience clapping in unison as Tweedy crooned the words of Woody Guthrie.

Most of the new songs share equally complicated, alternating musical structures as the tunes on Wilco’s last disc, “A Ghost Is Born.” The verses of “Shake It Off” had Tweedy singing a tip-toeing, ascending vocal melody that was paired with an electric piano. The song then transitioned Pink Floyd-style into a series of muscular guitar breaks featuring a powerful, stuttered riff. “Impossible Germany” and especially “Walken,” were better, but also showcased frequent, furious guitar interludes. “Walken” began with a funky, ’70s piano part and culminated with a powerhouse coda in which Cline and Tweedy dueted on guitar like they were King Crimson reborn. Cline gave one of his finest high-speed solos on rocker “Let’s Not Get Carried Away” and keyboardists Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen pushed themselves to the foreground and essentially brought the house down on the piano romp of “Is That The Thanks I Get?”

Tweedy also took time to thank opening act, fellow Chicagoans Detholz!, by dedicating their excellent performance of “Late Greats,” a song eulogizing music’s unsung heroes. The quintet’s own half-hour set was infused with frenetic energy and unusual melodies that combined the keyboard whimsy of Styx (with less cheesy majesty), that familiar, insistent Coldplay drum pattern and high, two-part vocal harmonies.

Perhaps out of familial concerns about the looming holiday, Wilco’s set ended a tad early at 10:35 p.m.

“John has to get home for the 2 a.m. feeding,” deadpanned Tweedy.

It was clear by their fervent enthusiasm that the audience didn’t want to let the band go. They seemed to know that they were witnessing something special. While they were wowed by the group’s greatest hits, they also got a reminder on what they should be thankful for: Some new Wilco classics are about to be born.

Set List:

  • Hell Is Chrome
  • Shot In The Arm
  • Handshake Drugs
  • Shake It Off (New Song)
  • I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
  • Impossible Germany (New Song)
  • Muzzle Of Bees
  • Company In My Back
  • Sunken Treasure
  • Airline To Heaven
  • What Light (New Song)
  • Jesus, Etc.
  • Walken (New Song)
  • Theologians
  • I’m The Man Who Loves You

First Encore:

  • War On War
  • Late Greats
  • Let’s Not Get Carried Away (New Song)
  • Kingpin

Second Encore:

  • Hummingbird
  • Is That The Thanks I Get? (New Song)
  • Heavy Metal Drummer

Wilco’s Remaining Tour Dates:

  • Friday, Nov. 24 and Saturday, Nov. 25, Chicago

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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