There's no place like home for the holidays. Wrapping the first leg of a tour supporting their excellent eighth studio album, "The Whole Love," Wilco returned to Chicago this week for a residency, of sorts -- playing five shows at five different venues. The first, Monday night at the Civic Opera House, showcased a manic, dramatic and occasionally over-the-top band worthy of the venue. It even ended with a diva.
"This is how I tell it," bandleader Jeff Tweedy sang, opening the show with the gossamer lilt of "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," the 12-minute closer from "The Whole Love." He then proceeded to backtrack the story of his band in a two-and-a-half-hour set that spanned Wilco's entire catalog. Considering the ups and downs of the last 16 years -- the low drama and presidential highs -- it's a tale that indeed belongs in an opera house.
8 p.m. Tuesday at the Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine (with 11th Dream Day)
8 p.m. Thursday at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield (with Jon Langford & Skull Orchard)
8 p.m. Friday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark (with the Paulina Hollers)
8 p.m. Sunday at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln (with Fred Armisen)
All shows are sold out
Monday's performance was in three acts. Act I starred the band as a whole, a fierce army of warriors, easing out of the overture and barreling into "Poor Places." Tweedy, scruffy and Hobbit-like, sang not as a front man but as one voice among many. The band worked seamlessly together, handing off flourishes and leads among the virtuosic players, from the keyboards and samples of Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone to the scorching solos and screeching feedback of guitarist Nels Cline. The song swelled to a torrent of white noise, out of which John Stirratt's throbbing bass pulled the thread into the great, loping bass part of "Art of Almost."
Here again, everyone played his part while Tweedy jitter-danced at the mike and Cline rang and then ripped notes from his guitar, leaving us again in an apocalyptic drone. Throughout this first section, songs were not torn apart as much as pushed to their limit. Glenn Kotche's rolling drums kept the pulse of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" while Cline poked static into the mix before once again concluding in cacophony.
Act II began before the operatically titled "Impossible Germany." Tweedy finally spoke, assuming a more central role and greeting the crowd with the first of several batches of playful banter. "We're at the opera!" he marveled, acknowledging the unusual venue for such amplified racket. Later: "You guys are rowdy. I don't know if they smoke this much weed at the opera." This middle section of the show calmed down, played more conventionally. Nick Lowe, looking like Spencer Tracy and sounding like Buck Owens, opened the show earlier and referred to Wilco as "a bunch of swingin' guys," and here they actually did -- the loose-limbed lope of "What Light," the Paul Williams jauntiness of "Capitol City," safer, sweeter stuff.
By the time "Box Full of Letters" riffed around, Act III began in earnest, a final round of songs splicing and dicing the band's genetic Americana but underscoring their united front. One moment they're as tight and mature as the Heartbreakers, the next they're flailing -- Cline pealing squeals from the top of his double-neck guitar while Tweedy lamely whistles through "Dawned on Me." Cline went spastic in "A Shot in the Arm," flinging his guitar with a desperately controlled fury -- stopping just short of letting it fly into the wings, the rafters, the crowd -- while Jorgensen actually mashed the keys of his organ with a pillow. This was opera all right, and it ended in musical bruises and blood.
The encore started calmly enough, even somewhat phoned in. Then Sansone, who's actually sung opera before, ended "Candyfloss" with a hearty, sustained note, and the Valkyries started riding again. Kotche began "I'm the Man Who Loves You" standing on the rims of his kit, bathed in light, sticks in the air, like a heavy metal drummer, indeed. By the end of the song, Tweedy accepted a "WILCO" license plate from someone in the crowd and finished his guitar solo using it as a slide. "My best solo ever," he said.
The second encore will be the most talked and tweeted about. As he's done throughout the last six weeks of the tour, Lowe joined Wilco for a reverent run through his own 1979 single "Cruel to Be Kind." The show has been ending there. Monday night, however, continued with another special guest, soul legend Mavis Staples, who softly cooled things down with "You Are Not Alone" (written by Tweedy and from Staples' 2010 album of the same name) before heating things back up. Staples, Lowe and Tweedy swapped verses on "The Weight (Take a Load Off, Annie)," with Staples really cooking and demanding over and over toward the end to put the load, put the load, put the load, put the load right on her. Only thing left to say: Bravo!
Wilco's set list Monday night
"One Sunday Morning"
"Art of Almost"
"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"
"Rising Red Lung"
"Far Far Away"
"War on War"
"Box Full of Letters"
"Pot Kettle Black"
"Dawned on Me"
"A Shot in the Arm"
"Heavy Metal Drummer"
"I'm the Man Who Loves You"
"Outtasite (Outta Mind)"
"Cruel to Be Kind" with Nick Lowe
"You Are Not Alone" with Mavis Staples
"The Weight (Take a Load Off, Annie)" with Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe