The battle for No. 2 has begun--on the XRT 2008 Listener Poll for Best Live Show. You probably could have predicted that on December 10, 2007, when Lin Brehmer announced this five-night stand where Jeff Tweedy vowed to play every track off all six studio albums. But now it's official: the Winter Residency was a phenomenal success. We were there for Night 3 (Monday, I'm all high), and had the chance to hear Nights 4 and 5 courtesy of XRT and Wilcoworld, respectively.
Wilco has changed so much over the years, that for the 2008 lineup to play all six albums really requires them to be a Tributosaurus of themselves: the rootsy first record, the warm pop of the Jay Bennett years, and the sonic noisefest of the newer releases. And while the old Wilco can never be recaptured or re-created, this was as close as I've felt (and probably ever will feel) to the shows when Wilco was at its absolute peak. For example, on "Should've Been in Love," I felt I was hearing the Wilco of Summerfest in 1996, the Wilco from the Blue Note in 1997. To ask the current band to always be like that is impossible, which is what made this residency so special. (In fact, as I'm writing now I'm listening to the 2007 Hammerstein show, and it feels like a totally different Wilco than Chicago 2008.) This really was a thank you and a gift to the hometown fans.
In a setting such as this, you had no idea what they would open with. It turned out to be "Blue Eyed Soul," going all the way back to A.M. There was no banter, no pomp, the band just eased into an unlikely opener. Dobro and pedal steel from Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgensen gave the song a warm, alt-country feel that, if not captured the "original Wilco" feel, at least acknowledged it.
In fact, the first seven tracks covered six different albums (considering the two Mermaid Avenues as separate albums), a feat unimaginable from a Wilco recently unwilling to reach deep into its past. On "Remember the Mountain Bed," bassist John Stirratt joined in on backup vocals for the fifth verse. For a song that I'm used to hearing in a Tweedy solo set, the embellishments beyond just the acoustic guitar were a welcome addition.
Through the next few songs (including Glenn Kotche plinking a xylophone on another "solo" song, "Bob Dylan's Beard"), Wilco remained in slow to mid-tempo mode, as if they too were warming up on a cold night. (On the cab ride up, we passed a bank sign that said it was 11 degrees. On the way home four hours later, it was 10 degrees.) The nostalgia couldn't last all night, and I knew something was up when before the sixth song, I saw Kotche drape towels over his two main drumheads. Although "Wishful Thinking" is not one of the angrier songs, it was particularly violent, especially coming after the mellowness of the first few songs. And it wasn't until the next song, "You Are My Face," that Tweedy first played an electric guitar.
After that June 2007 show at the Hammerstein, I read a review (I thought it was the New York Times but couldn't find it) where the reviewer mentioned the line "I'll side with you if you side with me" as Tweedy's sales pitch for the new, noisy Wilco: a deal he's offering fans. I thought of that during "Side With the Seeds," because in his body language and the way points back and forth at the words "I" "you" and "me," he really does seem to be saying, "look, here's the deal, this is the band today. Take it or leave it."
The first song that the crowd really got into (remember, it was a mellow-starting show) was "Shot in the Arm," an explosive burst where the band channeled the audience's disaffection. The singalong/shout of "maybe all I need is a shot in the arm" and "what you once were isn't what you want to be anymore" were some of the loudest of the night.
The classic Tweedy banter was evident all night. At one point he said, "Now we're going to play a couple songs off the first record," and was cheered. A roadie or somebody whispered in his ear. "Really?....(checks his set list)... Whoops! You're right. (turns back to audience) Now we're going to play a couple songs off the first record--you bought." To which he got some good-natured boos, because it was a YHF song.
As nice as the career retrospective of the first set was, the highlight for me was the second set: of the 14 songs, 11 were pre-YHF. Nine of the first 11 songs off Summerteeth were played. Being There wasn't represented until the 23rd song of the night...but then got four total, including the too-rare "Red Eyed and Blue/I Got You" combo. "Say You Miss Me" reminded me of the great Being There tour, with Tweedy, Bennett and Stirratt all lined up and singing with passion and joy. This time it was Tweedy, Stirratt and Pat Sansone...better than not hearing it all, I guess.
There were other highlights too: when "I'm the Man Who Loves You" exploded into the controlled shitstorm of noise that is the hallmark of post-YHF Wilco. The way the Chicago crowd reacts to "Via Chicago" (even if the band has, in my opinion, messed up that song with the sonic wall of "fireworks" in the verses). The face-melting solo of Nels Cline on "Impossible Germany." The horns, the guest appearance of Andrew Bird, even the best PA music I think I've ever heard. (Bowie's "Starman" at halftime, CSNY's "Our House" as we filtered out into the biting February wind.)
If you were there, let me know what you think in the comments. It was an incredible night, like seeing an old friend from the 6th grade who grew up and got super rich and lives a different life now. But for one night (or five), he was back in his old neighborhood, and for that one night, he was kinda sorta that same kid you knew back then.
A comment on "Handshake Drugs": I consider this a YHF outtake, because that's how and when the song first surfaced. Since it also appeared on Ghost, I've noted it with an asterisk on the set list. But for tallying, it's counted as a YHF outtake. I listened to that YHF version on my MP3 player the day after the show, and was taken by how slow it was. By the time it made it to Ghost and then to the live stage, it pepped up quite a bit.
Click here for the set list, broken out by album and color-coded for your reading ease. The two Mermaid Aves are listed as one, for convenience and at any rate, those records were not a factor after the beginning. The one thing that really stood out for me was the heavy emphasis on Being There and Summerteeth in the second half of the set. Those were the albums with the biggest Jay Bennett influence, and his absence was most felt on those songs.
You can read the Chicago Tribune's non-Greg Kot write-up here.