Wilco Moves On

Riviera Theatre - Chicago

May 7, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, June 1999, Volume 6, #6

Written by John Metzger


In the early '90s, Uncle Tupelo reinvigorated the country rock movement, building a steady, loyal following and a reputation that has only grown in stature since their demise. While Jay Farrar moved on to form Son Volt, Jeff Tweedy, the band's other singer/songwriter, reunited the remaining members as Wilco, and they haven't looked back for a second.

With each album they released, Wilco has moved further beyond simple country-rock anthems, and they've begun to fully explore new, more complex territories. Their latest release, the brilliant Summerteeth, contains a vast array of musical colors and textures that draw upon a virtual encyclopedia of rock and pop influences.

For those longing for the past, have no fear. If Wilco's performance on May 7 at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago is any indication, they haven't completely abandoned it they've just rearranged it. While the elaborately arranged and orchestrated compositions on Summerteeth seem to stand in sharp contrast to the music of Uncle Tupelo, underneath all the shimmering studio wizardry, the songs are still pure Tweedy.

There's no question that Wilco filled the hall with lush arrangements when the songs needed it most. Throughout the evening, newcomer Leroy Bach played the perfect counterpart to Jay Bennett as the two utilized a variety of keyboards and guitars to embellish the group's sound and enhance the emotion inherent in Tweedy's lyrics and vocal delivery. A Shot in the Arm was revved up right from the start, and before it could conclude, Wilco spun the song off its axis into a swirl of synthesizers, keyboards, and the off-beat strums of Tweedy's acoustic guitar. On Via Chicago, the group floated a dreamy melody against the nightmarish backdrop of Bennett's discordant, feedback-laden electric guitar. In addition, Bach added a backing arrangement of synthesized strings to the gentle She's a Jar, which Tweedy sang with nearly a spoken word delivery.

More often than not, however, Wilco was content to simply let the songs stand on their own with simpler, yet no less potent, arrangements. Gone was the ringing bell of Can't Stand It and the more psychedelic aspects of I'm Always in Love. Instead, the songs rode the driving undercurrent of bass and drums provided by John Stirratt and Ken Coomer.

Of Wilco's older selections, only Passenger Side was reinvented this time around with a slow groove la the Rolling Stones. Songs like I Got You (at the End of the Century), Christ for President, and Monday, were pounded out with a vengeance rather than fitted with new arrangements. In addition, the group seemed somewhat bored with audience favorites Casino Queen, Outtasite (Outta Mind), and New Madrid, which didn't truly fit with a lot of the musical and lyrical themes of the new material.

Most of the songs in the first half of Wilco's set drifted together through a whisper of feedback or a subtle sprinkling of keyboard sounds. This further established the flow and mood developed on their new album and gave this part of the show the premeditated, conceptual disposition of a mini-rock opera. I Must Be High was the perfect answer to I'm Always in Love, and the triple punch of Summerteeth, How to Fight Loneliness, and Hotel Arizona appeared to encapsulate the group's last few weeks on the road. It was as if they were saying, "It's good to be home again."

Joe Henry opened the show with a standard set of material that drew from The Wallflowers, Tom Petty, and Screaming Trees. His songs were fueled by a powerful drum beat and swirling electric guitar textures, but Henry's vocals often lacked passion and emotion. This was inevitably the downfall of his 40-minute performance.

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Copyright 1999 The Music Box