CHICAGO -- In their first proper hometown gig since releasing the acclaimed Summer Teeth in March, Wilco hit the Riviera Theater on Friday with a three-encore show that concentrated on their complex new material while still highlighting work from their full catalog.
Though he hardly spoke, singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy visibly enjoyed himself, smiling shyly and laughing throughout the show. Beside him, multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett kicked his leg out backwards, mule style, emphasizing muscular guitar riffs.
While Tweedy and Bennett stand as Wilco's creative face, the band's less visible members -- John Stirratt (bass), Ken Coomer (drums) and Leroy Bach (keyboards) -- also played crucial roles in Wilco's live presentation.
On "Christ for President" -- from Mermaid Avenue, Wilco's 1998 collaboration with Billy Bragg -- Tweedy's gritty reading of Woody Guthrie's lyrics took center-stage. But Coomer subtly put the song over the top, rumbling on his tom-toms as if he were at an old-time political rally.
Stirratt's backing vocals and Bach's keyboards, meanwhile, fleshed out the intriguing studio textures of Summer Teeth.
Before the show, longtime fan Chris Hahs wondered whether the crowd would appreciate the new songs, particularly since they shift the group's sound from No Depression country to mid-'70s pop.
Between encores, Hahs, 26, said Wilco had aced the set. "They pulled it off, and I didn't think it was possible," he said.
When Wilco played several tracks from Summer Teeth during an informal session at Chicago's Tower Records in March, rough edges still poked out.
Now most have been honed to an engaging sharpness. Songs that don't immediately stand out on the album, such as "My Darling" and "When You Wake Up Feeling Old" (RealAudio excerpt), stepped to the fore, as notable for their tenderness as such songs as "Via Chicago" were for their rawness.
If the group's hurried execution threatened to diminish "Shot in the Arm," Tweedy made sure with two lines that the piece was not undercut. "Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm," he repeated, as the musical tension rose and eventually broke. "Something in my veins," he contemplated, "bloodier than blood." The lyrics are ravaging, particularly coming from Tweedy's scuffed-up throat. It seems impossible for him to deliver material this visceral in a rote manner.
Elsewhere, the 31-year-old singer demonstrated his knack for work that thrives on several levels.
When he and Stirratt harmonized on the refrain from "How to Fight Loneliness" (RealAudio excerpt) -- "Just smile all the time" -- they made the prospect of lying one's way to happiness seem attractive. Though the song is a manual for deception, it was hard not to notice its delicate charm.
On "Red-Eyed and Blue," from Being There (1996), Tweedy both undercut and accommodated rock's conventions. "Al-co-hol," he shouted to the cheers of the crowd, before he delivered the follow-up lyric, "and cotton balls." Tweedy didn't seem to mind if some in the crowd took the medical lines for a drinking salute.
While Wilco emphasized the craft of the 12 songs they played from Summer Teeth, they simply rocked out for most of the remaining 14 songs. They cranked Being There's "Monday" like a full-bore rock anthem. "Casino Queen" (RealAudio excerpt), from A.M. (1995), became a raucous, communal ode to hedonistic release.
Wilco will tour the West Coast during the second half of May. They will also play nine dates in August, opening for R.E.M.