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April 29, 2003

Minus Five lead singer + alcohol + Wilco = wild night

Say you're at a party with friends who like to make noise and be noticed. You're all drinking, but nobody's yet crossed the line. In fact, the other kids still think your loudmouth antics are kind of cool. Then, suddenly, it becomes clear that someone will need to hug the porcelain before the evening is over. He's falling all over the place and doesn't seem to notice. He can still form sentences, but that won't last long. He's still having fun. Do you tell him he's through?

Not if you're Wilco. Maybe everybody had agreed to pull out all the stops when the Minus Five Down With Wilco! tour played its second night at the Abbey Pub. The place was crowded, after all, and Wilco frenzy is hard not to come by in packs of Chicago concertgoers. Nevertheless, when a show ends with the backing band stepping over a nearly passed-out front man (in this case, Scott McCaughey, formerly of Young Fresh Fellows and now the anchor for Minus Five's drifting cast of characters), you can't really cheer in good conscience.

Not that the project wasn't laudable otherwise. Scott McCaughey is no guitar guru and his singing is unremarkable, but he's got the goods when it comes to assembling catchy indie pop numbers. Not for nothing has he made his mark on the college radio canon--even his critics will grant that his music is enjoyable (just not challenging enough).

And despite what the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot hype would have you believe, Wilco has not yet abandoned accessible pop music with all of its infectious harmonies and sensical instrumentals. Just listen to "Heavy Metal Drummer" on YHF if you need a reason to believe it: they still want you to hop and screech along, even after they've bombarded you with all of those hard-to-grasp blips, whirs, and warbles.

It would seem like a complimentary match, then, for Minus Five's latest incarnation. Wilco makes you think, McCaughey makes you hum, and when a band can make you do both, they've hit the jackpot. And, while much of Down With Wilco! has fallen flat for fans who'd expected more from the collaboration, the gems did sparkle on stage with the album's "nice enough" melody lines emerging beautifully from fuzzily dissonant jams.

All of this was punctuated, with varying degrees of emphasis, by Minneapolis' sexiest violinist, Jessy Greene. While a well-timed hook played on violin strings may be a dirty trick, one can also argue that long hair and short skirts are a transparent attempt to remain in someone's field of vision. Some things just work.

What didn't work, however, was McCaughey's sloppy-drunk envelope-pushing. To his credit, McCaughey sometimes seemed apologetic for behavior that fell on the abrasive side of the line a rocker must walk when attempting to be edgy. He knew he was monopolizing the microphone between songs yet somehow couldn't stop talking, just as maybe he knew he wasn't a prodigious pianist, even as he detailed the level of awesomeness at which he was about to play.

One would hope he could at least imagine that his audience wouldn't really like being showered with his half empty (half full?) cups of beer as "Dear Employer" strained for epic intensity, closing out the set. (Picture a large 50-year-old swaying dangerously against a slim microphone pole chanting, "That's the reason why I quit" while dousing himself with alcohol. Grandiose, isn't it?)

Then again, I'm willing to concede that McCaughey knows a thing or two more than I when it comes to rock music. He did manage to keep up with Wilco, who played with an almost jarringly stoic competence. Moreover, the beer-dampened cheering section standing front and center did demand an encore. But when McCaughey staggered back onstage to talk about how "magical" the evening's performance had been and then haltingly rendered a few solo numbers with an acoustic guitar, it felt like we had all handed car keys to a drunk. Even when his crew returned to help him steer, it was clear that not even Tweedy's commandeering of the vocals was going to keep us from a crash.

Which was ultimately what happened. After falling into the audience and being redeposited onstage, McCaughey ended the show horizontally, although he did get up and start speaking into the microphone again as the crowds dispersed. The whole schtick appeared to be vaguely intentional and some of the audience even bought it (although it is the Abbey Pub, where going to a concert is often equated with getting drunk and talking). However, I'm sure there was also a contingent that left shaking their heads at the outcome of a collaboration that should have delivered more