Wilco is Chicago Through and Through

Arts reporter Sofia Hrycyszyn covers the classic Chicago experience of Wilco at the Riviera.


Sofia Hrycyszyn

Bassist John Stirratt stood to Tweedy’s right, with drummer Glenn Kotche in the shadows at the back of the stage.

By Sofia Hrycyszyn, Arts Reporter

A middle-aged woman walked on stage at the Riviera, blinking under the lights. She introduced herself as a local Chicago WXRT rock radio station spokeswoman and remarked, “Wilco is as Chicago as the river. They run right through this town.” After briefly thanking the audience, she dipped back into the shadows, leaving the crowd itching for the band. Intimately wrapped up in Chicago’s contemporary music history, Wilco has crafted their distinct sound from a blend of country, alt rock, and indie. Their lyrics often hint at familiar Chicago landmarks and their most iconic album cover, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, depicts Marina City, the corncob-like skyscrapers along the Chicago River.

Almost 30 years after the release of their first album, Wilco retains their connection with the city. The last week of March, they played three sold-out shows at Chicago’s Riviera Theater, with each night showcasing a completely different setlist; after decades of making music, the breadth of Wilco’s sound cannot be contained in one show. On March 26, their final night, they were clearly in their element. The Riviera seemed to be past capacity, with the crowd pushing at the walls of the theater. The crowd was not only large, but it was full of hardcore Wilco fans: One of the men standing next to me in line had flown in from Portland, Oregon for the sake of seeing the show with his high school best friend, just as they had done at the Riviera 15 years prior.

Lead singer and guitarist Jeffy Tweedy, with his disheveled gray hair and slightly haunted look, took center-stage. Nels Cline—“maybe the best guitarist alive,” the Portlander assured me—stood to the left, mostly blocking pianist Mikael Jorgensen. Bassist John Stirratt stood to Tweedy’s right, with drummer Glenn Kotche in the shadows at the back of the stage. The band opened with “At Least That’s What You Said,” which opened with Tweedy’s melancholy vocals over gentle piano, before suddenly switching to aggressive plucking of the guitar which was soon joined by an intense drumbeat. The instrumental interlude often shifted in melody and energy, giving the audience a taste of Wilco’s ability to layer sounds and rhythms.

As the first song faded, the steady drumbeat picked back up with the beginning of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Guitar and piano notes gradually established a rhythm, and then Tweedy jumped in with Wilco’s typical cryptic lyrics. Matching the song’s staccato feel, he sang, “Spiders are filling out tax returns…on a private beach in Michigan.” Lead guitarist Cline’s face contorted, and his shoulders tensed as fingers flew over the guitar. It was impossible to take a photo with Cline’s hands in focus; he was a constant blur of music and motion.

Wilco’s country elements first became prominent with “Whole Love,” which opened with longer, more acoustic-sounding guitar chords and a magical flute-like sound. Here, Tweedy’s vocals were jarringly different from their previous songs, hitting staccato high notes and holding the “o” in the “whole” of the repeated “whole love.” The song opens with flower imagery—marigolds, roses—and is reminiscent of Wilco’s most popular country songs like “Don’t Forget the Flowers” and “When the Roses Bloom Again.” However, those flowery songs were included only in the previous night’s performance, to the disappointment of some audience members. Those songs, while classic, did not fit the night’s alt-rock instrumental focus, but “Whole Love” acted as a nice blend, bringing in more country components while complementing the night’s tone.

The audience nodded along to the distinct opening guitar solo of “I’ll Fight,” singing along as drums crashed and the vocals began. With relatively straightforward chorus lyrics and parallel verse structure, “I’ll Fight” offered the crowd a chance to participate in a way that many of the more instrument-heavy songs had not. “I’ll Fight” is uniquely suited to concerts because of its balance of singable lyrics and captivating instrumentals, and the audience responded accordingly, singing and swaying to the beat.

Following “I’ll Fight,” the backdrop transitioned from an image of floating flowering plants to a white-on-black outline of the Chicago skyline, with the river cutting down through the middle. They moved artfully through a series of heart wrenching songs—“Side with the Seeds,” “One and a Half Stars,” “Tired of Taking it Out On You,” and “Impossible Germany.” After establishing its rhythm, “Impossible Germany” dives into repetition of the cryptic lyrics: “impossible Germany, unlikely Japan.” With its slow beat and gentle vocals, the song gives the impression of expressing the more painful aspects of love. However, with lyrics like “this is what love is for / to be out of place,” examining the words does not produce a clearer picture of its meaning. Even without understanding the words, though, the wailing of the guitar expresses enough pain and longing to leave an impression on the listener. The lyrics completely stop less than halfway through the song, leaving the audience to sit with the reflective space of the music.

Keeping the energy sad and low, the band played a few more slow songs, the most well-known being “Reservations,” with its soft piano chords and pleading vocals. There was then a marked switch in energy with the upbeat drums and higher key of “Either Way,” which attempts to make peace with a relationship in which “maybe you still love me, [but] maybe you don’t.” Before moving into the next song, Tweedy leaned into the microphone and said, “Even though I don’t think people take the lyrics that seriously, I want to let you know that this one’s not about you.” The precarious acceptance of the previous track quickly turned to anger with “Hate it Here,” which alternates explosive singing—“I hate it here / when you’re gone”—with aggressive guitar riffs. That high energy, stemming from the unwanted end of a relationship, extended into “Dawned On Me.” Similarly, the instrumentals picked up during the chorus in time to Tweedy’s singing “I can’t help it if I fall in love with you again…it dawned on me.”

As the song faded, Tweedy looked out into the audience. “Thank you so much,” he said. “Let’s sing this one together to say goodnight.” Met to a chorus of boos, Tweedy furrowed his brows. “Get it out of your system,” he said. “We don’t boo enough as a society.” He lifted his arms and seemed to soak in the noise. “Thank you. It fills me up,” he quipped before the first notes of “Jesus, Etc.” filled the room, opening with a violin and a calm but groovy beat. Fundamentally a love song, as much of Wilco’s songs are, “Jesus, Etc.” is popular because the lyrics are just the right amount of cryptic while remaining easy to sing along to. As is typical with Wilco, the intricate and unique instrumentals make for a piece that is enjoyable to listen to on repeat, but with something new always available for discovery beneath the surface.