Redefined Wilco as good as ever


November 25, 2001



One of the most significant artists recording in Chicago today, Jeff Tweedy is nonetheless in an unenviable position.

His band, Wilco, has made the fourth and best album of its career, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." But because it split with its label, Reprise, it has been unable to get the disc in stores as planned this year.

The group that performed at a sold-out Riviera Theatre on Friday, the first of a two-night stand, was a different one than the band that played a triumphant show in Grant Park on July 4. And by no means has it been a given that its loyal fan base would accept any of the recent, dramatic changes.

But one could sense the tide turning two-thirds of the way through a daring 90-minute set heavy on the new material (which is so far available only on the Web). During a radically reworked version of "Misunderstood," the first track from its second album "Being There," the band built to a frenzied climax as Tweedy poured his heart into the tortured lyrics.

"So misunderstood I'd like to thank you all for nothin' at all," he sang, daring to alienate the very people who keep him from being "positively unemployed," as the tune goes. But like the song's protagonist, Tweedy made it clear that he still loves rock 'n' roll--even if he is taking his band in a very different direction.

The new Wilco is all about spare, evocative soundscapes, jarring juxtapositions, and a heavy, emotional wallop in the lyrics. The band has clearly turned away from the rollicking country-rock ("A.M.," "Being There") and lushly orchestrated, "Pet Sounds"-style pop ("Summer Teeth") with which it made its reputation.

But with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett gone amid what seems to be mounting acrimony, the current four-piece group (Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, keyboardist and occasional second guitarist Leroy Bach, and drummer Glenn Kotche) says as much with intriguing spaces as it ever did with comforting harmonies and jangling guitars.

Songs such as "War on War," "I'm the Man Who Loves You," and "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" were powered by Tweedy's plaintive vocals and the band's incredibly versatile new percussionist.

A native of the northwest suburbs, Kotche can rock with the best of them--his cymbal thrashing finale to "Misunderstood" would have done his hero Moe Tucker proud--but he also colored the sound with impressive subtlety.

"In-Glenn-tions," Tweedy calls the array of high- and low-tech noisemakers, and at various points, Kotche could be seen playing vibraphone, crotales (tuned brass discs), table tennis balls filled with shotgun pellets, an electronic sampler, and dinner bells, all while maintaining a propulsive beat.

The added space has also made more room for Stirratt's gorgeous harmonies and ultra-melodic bass parts, and for Bach to step forward with more imaginative keyboard work (a factor the band could continue to expand).

The strength of this lineup and the power of the new material finds Tweedy more comfortable than ever on stage. Like Bob Dylan playing with his current band, the smile in between songs seems to say the artist knows he's never been better, or at least he's never had more fun. Which means he may be someone to envy after all.

Opening for Wilco on Friday was another Chicago treasure: the cinematic blues/country/art-rock band Califone.

Led by Tim Rutili, formerly of Red Red Meat, the group has grown over the course of three EP's and a stellar album ("Roomsound," released earlier this year) into deft and creative mood merchants.

Utilizing guitar, keyboards, violin, banjo, and two percussionists, Califone toured mysterious landscapes, summoned dark clouds, then dispersed them with a ray of light, winning over a crowd that started out skeptical and ended up as fans.