Wilco at the Riverside Theater
You want the short version, the kind you get in a tweet or the blurb on a poster? Here you go: that was the best concert I’ve ever been privileged to witness. Why? Because fucking Wilco, that’s why.
I’ve seen Jeff Tweedy and his bandmates in nearly all of their different incarnations and numbers all along the way. I’ve seen them in a small Chicago club in the Being There days. I saw them along with hundreds of thousands of fans whipped into a sweaty frenzy at Summerfest shortly after A Ghost is Born was released. I watched the concert documentary Ashes of American Flags (
that one with the Hoan Bridge on its poster) on a quiet night at Turner Hall. I am a fan, but I was determined to put on my critic’s hat for the sake of an article. Wilco makes it very difficult.
Sure, I could complain: after a charming acoustic set by legendary songwriter and musician Nick Lowe, it was almost 10 p.m. before the band took the stage. By that time, the sold-out audience in the Riverside Theater on Friday night was sufficiently sloshed.
But by the third song, they had blown everyone away. You realized by that point that the technically rich detail of sound (the end of every song meant a fresh change of guitar for everyone) and the extraordinary light show turned a concert into a concert experience. The roaring applause that came down sounded like an opera house on opening night.
I could also complain that Tweedy’s banter with the crowd waivered between snide and cocky to a soothing and pandering kind of masochism. But truth be told, that drunk kid up front needed heckling. Plus, Tweedy looked healthy and into it, bopping along to his own songs like a toddler who has just discovered music. It was great to see him smile widely.
I wondered what the Riverside was going to be like for this show. I’m still sore I missed out on the reportedly legendary two-night set in 2009 hosted at the Pabst Theater. The Riverside is a little more roomy, a little less intimate, but it was just right for this show; a mix of high-energy with space enough to spin off into supersonic glory while at other times still small enough during gentler, kinder songs to feel the love. Whoever designed the stage with the LED-mini spotlights, the hanky ghosts with timed bulbs (you had to be there), and the complex projector show deserves some kind of award. It drove everyone into a kind of rhythmic spasm, like the Holy Spirit had entered them.
What’s that line Fairuza Balk as ‘band-aid’ Sapphire says in the movie Almost Famous? “To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts?” That was the crowd, in a nutshell.
The band came out for the encore and played another 40 minutes. They then came out for a second encore, bringing Nick Lowe on stage for a great rendition of his classic hit “Cruel to be Kind.” Though the crowd was exhausted, they still wanted more. But the midnight hour was nigh, and Wilco left the stage arm-in-arm before the magic of the night could dissolve.