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Wilco — 15 December 2019, Chicago, IL (Chicago Theatre) [Winterlude Night 1 of 4]

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I can just see the soon-to-be JamBase headline now, likely based on this report and/or other social media: Wilco bust out Beatles, Soft Boys covers with Robyn Hitchcock on first night of Chicago residency. Am I right? :headbonk

More on that later, of course, but since I’m kind of having an existential crisis as the year — and the decade — rapidly draw to a close, I wanted to first say that it occurred to me tonight while taking in Night 1 of another Wilco Winterlude in Chicago that the band really has become something greater than the sum of its parts. A little over 25 years into its career, Wilco has become an octopus-like entity whose arms extend in so many different directions. Just take a look around at the crowd at the Chicago Theatre, and you’ll see fans both new and old, hardcore and casual, some of whom traveled here from around the country and the world, others from across town. You’ll see relatives and friends of band members, crew and management. You’ll see people the band has collaborated with on merchandise, charitable endeavors or other pursuits. And who knows what other connections I’m missing… :wave

What makes this different from any other show and why does any of this matter? I don’t know, really. I guess I just wonder whether we’ll all be doing this next year, or in five years or in 10. Will I still be around? Will the band? Anyway, I suppose it’s a reminder to try and appreciate the moment because it’s probably even more fleeting than we realize.

How to tie this all into a recap of the first night of Winterlude 2019? Again, I don’t really know except perhaps to say that proper perspective is paramount. Was this among the top tier of Wilco shows I’ve seen? Can’t say it was. Was this a good representation of the show the band wants to present right now as it supports its latest record, Ode To Joy? Most definitely. Was there any extra significance to the show taking place in Chicago? In my opinion, not really. Was it nice for local folks who might not have gotten a chance to see the band play in a while, or see the OTJ material live yet? Certainly.

Of course, from this correspondent’s viewpoint, the final two songs of the show were highlights as Jeff invited support act Robyn Hitchcock back to the stage and introduced him as one of the band’s heroes. With Hitchcock, who sported one of his trademark polka dot shirts, assuming lead vocal duties, Wilco launched into the appropriately trippy sounds of the Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows. It’s a song Jeff and Co. played a handful of times with various folks on the Americanarama tour in 2013 but not since and once at a festival in 2016 with Bob Weir, and it was a welcome surprise. Then to top off Night 1, the Wilco-Hitchcock (Wilcock? Hitchco?) tandem naturally blazed through I Wanna Destroy You, the Hitchcock-penned tune recorded by the Soft Boys in 1980 and Uncle Tupelo just over a decade later. According to Greg Kot's Learning How To Die, Uncle Tupelo’s version of I Wanna Destroy You, producers hoped, would be included on the Still Feel Gone album, but only got released as the B-side to the Gun single.

Prior to that, the show was a good example of a standard OTJ set. Everyone Hides, of course, got a little extra plug from Jeff, who noted that the video was shot all over Chicago and that it was “the first video in like 20 years we put ourselves in. For good reason. It’s not our strong suit.” And the back-to-back performances of We Were Lucky and Love Is Everywhere (Beware) mid-way through were welcome, if not exactly unexpected.

As far as other noteworthy songs, Impossible Germany featured a pretty lengthy Nels solo, and being seated pretty far over on Pat’s side, I appreciated the clarity of the sound mix because sometimes when you’re over on one side or the other, you can’t hear the other side nearly as well. And there was a little amusing moment between Pat and Jeff after California Stars when Pat doodled around with a little fragment of Dueling Banjos on his banjitar and Jeff briefly reciprocated with the other part on his acoustic guitar. :guitar

Jeff announced fairly early on his intention to "keep the chit-chat to a minimum," but of course his tongue got looser as the show wore on. For instance, after Hummingbird, Jeff responded to people yelling random things by saying, "We like individual expressions of approval. When everybody’s yelling, it’s hard to tell what compliments you’re giving us. Let’s go one at a time." Of course, that only led to more people yelling stuff — I believe he put a woman who yelled it was her birthday in her place — and Jeff jokingly admitted losing control of the crowd. "Let’s go back to songs about crushing sadness," he quipped. A few songs later, Jeff put on his used-car salesman guise while introducing Jesus, etc. "Let’s sing this one together, if you feel like it," he said. "I’m not gonna hard sell it: 'What’s it gonna take to get you guys into a singalong?'" And he also joked before Box Full Of Letters that he thought the audience had made it through all of the laments, "so let’s get this party started with some mid-tempo rock." :rock

He also had a funny introduction to Theologians, which he dedicated to his father-in-law Peter, by saying, "Thank you for taking my side most of time in arguments with your daughter." Of course that led perfectly into the next song, I’m The Man Who Loves You, which Jeff dedicated (as he always does) to his wife Susie, "who’s probably mad at me for what I said about the last song."

That’s about all she wrote for Night 1 of Winterlude 2019, I think, except to say that I don’t think any residency at the Chicago Theatre will ever approach the heights of those previously held at general-admission venues like the Riviera or Vic Theatres, the Fillmore in San Francisco or, more recently, the Palace Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., at least from a serious fan perspective, so you kind of have to take this week’s shows with a grain of salt. The Chicago Theatre, I would say, is generally tolerable depending on your seat location and who’s sitting around you, but it will never be a great room for Wilco, IMHO.

Maybe I’ll get into that more as the week goes on, but I don’t think I’m terribly off base with that statement. But again, any opportunity to see Wilco on a multi-night stand — especially with excellent support acts — can’t be a bad thing. After all, you never know when you might be looking back and pining for the days of Winterlude, no matter what the venue. ;)

Here was the complete setlist, as played, for Night 1 (there were no changes from the printed list):

Bright Leaves
Before Us
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
War On War
One and a Half Stars
Handshake Drugs
Side With The Seeds
White Wooden Cross
Via Chicago
Bull Black Nova
Random Name Generator
Impossible Germany
Jesus, etc.
We Were Lucky
Love Is Everywhere (Beware)
Box Full Of Letters
Everyone Hides
I'm The Man Who Loves You
Hold Me Anyway
I'm Always In Love
California Stars
The Late Greats
Tomorrow Never Knows [The Beatles] (w/Robyn Hitchcock on vocals)
I Wanna Destroy You [The Soft Boys] (w/Robyn Hitchcock on vocals)

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Only because my own frail psyche needs your own daily unadulterated odes to joy (and good brew of char).

Lordy lordy, if you’re dependent on these middle-of-the-night blatherings, God help ye. (Happy to help with the char sometime, though.)

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Thought it was a great show (love the Chicago Theatre). I will say that I am not a Bull Black Nova fan, I’ve come to appreciate it over the years, but I’ll never want to see it live, but damn if the version they played last night wasn’t the highlight of the show. I was legit startled when they kicked back in at the end of it after it got quiet haha.

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Great show! This was my first time seeing the OTJ songs live and I thought they really sounded sharp, with some extra punch than the album versions. "Before Us" really jumped out at me. "Bull Black Nova" was amazing — the 1-2 punch of that one and "Random Name Generator" was the highlight of the night for me.


The only negative thing I will say is the "toy" guitar Jeff uses on the OTJ songs sounds awful to me live. I wish he would use a different guitar from his arm of vintage acoustics. I understand it's place on the album, but in concert, alongside a pristine-sounding band, it just doesn't cut it. Maybe it's just me.


Bbop is right that the show didn't feel extra "special" for being the start of a residency run in Chicago, but 1. these aren't the "play all the deep cuts and everything on every album" Riviera days anymore and 2. we don't know what the next three shows will hold anyway. Great first night though. Here's hoping for a few surprises the rest of the way!

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Great show! I’ll add that the mix was fantastic, as I was by Nels’ side, but everything came through great. Best Wilco show since the last Wilco show made even better when two drunken buffoons were forcibly ejected. With Bull Black Nova, the background art worked really well with the song. Unfortunately, I don’t have tickets tonight, so onward to Wednesday!

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"What makes this different from any other show and why does any of this matter? I don’t know, really. I guess I just wonder whether we’ll all be doing this next year, or in five years or in 10. Will I still be around? Will the band? Anyway, I suppose it’s a reminder to try and appreciate the moment because it’s probably even more fleeting than we realize."


Appreciate the moment then get to the pub, it's your round FFS ! 

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If you liked that combo, then a NovaCat will leave you in a puddle on the floor.

I was hoping for that, based largely on the glowing descriptions I've read here! Maybe it's in store for one of the next shows. I'm not able to go tonight, but hope to see it Wednesday or Thursday.

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The Robyn + Wilco cover of "Tomorrow Never Knows" was incredible.  This was my first opportunity to hear the Ode to Joy songs live.  Far, far FAR superior to the album versions.  A great night (as it always is). 

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I do think the venue is important. But I also think a concert is an event where different people will have vastly different experiences based on many factors; who you're with, what kind of headspace you're in, how the band is playing, who is around you, where you sit/stand. In the end, it's kind of what you make of it.


I won't go see any band at the Riv or Aragon Ballroom anymore. Both venues are tough for me to get to, and usually way oversold. I also had bad experiences at them that have colored my opinion to the point of it not being worth it to go to, no matter who is playing there. 


The last time I went to the Riv the floor was so packed that I was stuck behind the bar with no view of the band at all. The last time I was at the Aragon was for Jack White. Packed to the rafters. I was way to the left with the stage PA blocking my view and could only see Jack when he came to the front of the stage. Zero view of the band. Awful sound. Terrible experiences for me, but I'm sure others had a magical time based on where they were in the building. I'm also at the age that fighting for floor space at GA shows is not appealing at all anymore. Kind of a been there done that feeling.


I loved seeing Wilco at Lounge Ax in the mid 90's. Even if crowded, you could see the stage from almost anywhere in the building. Loved the set lists back then too. I remember a strange but magical show in the Grand Ballroom on Navy Pier in 95. There was a Beer Fest going on in the building and Wilco played the ballroom. I guess most people were there for the beer as you could just casually walk up to the stage during the show with tons of room to move around. Great experiences.


That said, at this point in my life, I love shows at the Chicago Theater. It is really easy for me to get to by train or car. Easy parking. Places to eat and drink beforehand. The theater itself is beautiful, they don't make em like that anymore. The amount of marble in there always amazes me. I love walking around and exploring before shows. Bands generally sound good there too. 


I also like having my own space, that I get to pick, that I don't have to fight for when I leave for a drink or the bathroom. It is key getting good seats.  


I had my best pull of a Wilco presale in my life and spent Sunday with my wife, front row center in the PIT, and I couldn't stop smiling. My wife, who I went to those Wilco shows in the 90's with was crying tears of joy. Memories came flooding back. Music is a time machine, and in that moment we were reconnected to our shared experiences with the band, and our connection that grew over that time. It was a surreal experience. It was like having Wilco in my house playing a private show. Robyn Hitchcock being there, and him playing with the band was icing on the cake and I left feeling like I experienced something unique in my history of Wilco shows and will be a show I will always remember. 

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