November 2, 2004

A fan is born: Wilco's homecoming awes Auditorium

Wow. Simply wow. That is about the most accurate way to describe the first night of performance at the austere and delicately beautiful Auditorium Theatre by Chicago natives Wilco. Yet I will attempt to relay the experience to the best of my journalistic ability. To preface this analysis, I must be honest with all of you: I was not terribly familiar with Wilco's music, traditions, live shows, etc, prior to deciding to cover this show. Pretty much all I knew of them, prior to sharing a few iTunes with some friends, was that they were from Chicago and were quite popular. So on with the show.

Over the course of the past 10 years Wilco seems to have joined the ranks of those musical groups who are quintessentially tied to and representative of their home. While Wilco does not receive the national acclaim that other acts strive for or achieve through extensive touring schedules and radio play, you wouldn't know that if you were at the Auditorium theatre last Friday night.

Adequately primed for the show, thanks to an energetic performance from the spunky alt-rock outfit Deerhoof (and, no doubt, the open bar in the lobby), the capacity crowd was more than glad to have their hometown band back for the first time since June. Frontman Jeff Tweedy began the set with the lilting acoustic chord progression of their ode to their hometown,"Via Chicago." Tweedy and the band were certainly comfortable being back home.

The band then moved through a solid set list that included much from their latest highly-acclaimed album A Ghost is Born; "Handshake Drugs," "Muzzle of Bees," and "I'm Wheel" were well received. The set ended with a rather elaborate segue between "Theologians" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You," which appeared on the band's 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and which Tweedy later dedicated to his wife, who was in the audience.

The highlight of the second set was "Kingpin," a song from the 1996 release Being There, during which the audience got a chance to help out. Tweedy coaxed everyone into letting out deafening screams during several parts of the song, saying, "I've been doing rock for a while and [audience participation] seems to work." I imagine a deafening roar is not something in which an audience at this theater often participates, only adding to the delightfully fun attitude of the entire evening.

The final encore opened with the anthemic "Misunderstood," which had all those who "still love rock and roll" nodding their heads and singing along, and seemed to capture the vibe of the whole evening. Later in the encore, Tweedy offered his token opinion on the upcoming election, jokingly asking the audience if they "were sick of all the people telling you to vote." He then dove into "Christ for President," a song penned by Woody Guthrie, and featured on the first of Wilco's collaborative albums with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1.

Poking some more fun at the current political stew, Tweedy noted, "I know, we're just dumb guys with guitars. But I do know one thing: [George Bush] is a jerk." The band closed the set with the touching and poignant "Be Not So Fearful," written by Bill Fay. Seeing how many on both sides of the spectrum would have us believe the world is coming to a devastating end (no matter what happens on November 2), it puts a smile on my face to see that somebody with some common sense and a microphone can get everybody in mic's range to just calm down a bit.

After the show I had the privilege of chatting with Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, and he seemed pleased with how the show went. This is the second time in two years the band has played at the Auditorium Theatre, and the band certainly loves the venerable venue. Several of the press photos of the band were taken at the theater, which hosts a variety of events including the Bolshoi Ballet and, recently, REM. Seeing as how the band has sold out three consecutive shows there, I assume Mikael was not lying when he told me that "we have an in with these people."

Jorgensen also answered a few of my inquiries about the recently announced New Year's Eve show at Madison Square Garden, where Wilco will be joined by fellow indie rockers Sleater-Kinney and The Flaming Lips. Typically, Wilco celebrates NYE at the Fillmore West, but a venue of this size might call for some adjustments to the way the band approaches its show. "It's going to be a different kind of show," Joregensen commented when I inquired about this. Perhaps large New Years celebrations will become more of a tradition for Wilco, much like they were for Phish.

So, needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and can certainly say that I will attend many Wilco shows to come. That's really the point behind a concert review, isn't it? There are some bands that I patronize simply because I enjoy patronizing good music. But this is more than good music; it is music that makes you feel good, too. The Wilco show was a unique experience, one that I think represents the city of Chicago in a way that a Polish sausage or a Seurat painting cannot.