Wilco's show at the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday could've easily been cause for feel-good celebration. In addition to marking the local band's debut at the famed venue, it signified the group's first hometown reserved-seat theater performance in five years and kicked off the start of a sold-out four-night stand.
But Wilco wasn't in the mood to party. This winter residency would be different, at least to start, than similar runs staged in the city in 2008 and 2014. Rowdy, crowd-favorite anthems such as "Kingpin" were saved for another day. The sextet instead devoted a majority of its two-hour set to turbulent material steeped in disconnect and anxiety. Even leader Jeff Tweedy, prone to drifting off course with goofy banter, looked uneasier than normal.
Wearing a denim jacket and sporting a few braids, the singer/guitarist made several political remarks, at one point declaring, "we're going to persist and we're going to resist." Tweedy's statement captured the on-edge tenor of the songs, whose tension and discomfort mirrored the divides in America's sociopolitical climate. For a band that not long ago appeared on its way to settling into a safe comfort zone, Wilco sounded defiant, bold and, at times, menacing.
MOST READ ENTERTAINMENT NEWS THIS HOUR
Struggles over communication, revelations regarding doubt, concerns surrounding irreversible decisions — Wilco's narratives brimmed with restlessness and relevance. Pale stage lighting underlined the tone while jarring, off-balance rhythms indicated the turmoil at hand. The band largely eschewed belabored arrangements or delicate interplay, choosing hit-and-run approaches designed for immediate impact. Excesses got trimmed. Raw, foreboding passages and concise, experimental-leaning turns took priority.
Songs chafed, swerved and rumbled. Music from Wilco's most recent album, "Schmilco," and 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" prominently figured in the mix. "Cry All Day" began innocuously yet soon emerged as a tussle between conflicting emotions, its steadily increased noisiness and pace doubling as unspoken threats. "We Aren't the World (Safety Girl)" mentioned Armageddon and buried a pop melody beneath a dragging groove. The roughed-up undertow of "Locator" built to a fever pitch indicative of the tune's surveillance-minded paranoia. Even deceivingly mild, folk-based fare such as the haunting "If I Ever Was a Child" conveyed the sensation of walking barefoot over a path strewn with sharp pebbles.
Whenever serenity or order seemed within reach, they often proved illusive. The calm, floating waves of "Via Chicago" gave way to a seiche triggered by Nels Cline's frenzied, distorted guitar outbursts. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" straddled rural tranquility and urban cacophony, ultimately surrendering to the latter. A stripped-down, resigned "Misunderstood" faded into the black. "Heavy Metal Drummer" adopted sunny, bubblegum hooks but pined for lost innocence.
For all the sonic wizardry provided by Cline, as well as the no-frills steadiness of bassist John Stirratt, percussionist Glenn Kotche remains Wilco's sonic nucleus. His subtle adjustments — altering the angle of his wrists, changing handheld instruments mid-song, varying the force with which he hit the drums — yielded a medley of dynamics and power, swing and elegance usually associated with jazz. Kotche afforded Wilco a range that spanned beautifully fragile on "Reservations" to frighteningly aggressive on "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and practically everything in between no matter the circumstances.
"This can't be undone," Tweedy murmured on the murderous noir tale "Bull Black Nova," shivering as he sang. He needn't have fretted. On this night, no outcome deserved to be reversed.
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy pens open letter after Women's March photo draws ire
Wilco to play Chicago Theatre in 2017
Wilco brings sonic violence and whispers to Millennium Park
Wilco gets quieter, but not safer on 'Schmilco'
Check out the latest movie reviews from Michael Phillips and the Chicago Tribune.
Check out reviews for all new music releases from Tribune music critic Greg Kot.
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.