Wilco may be weary after 2 years on road

September 21, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Make no mistake: Wilco is a treasure. Jeff Tweedy and company are not only one of the best bands ever to call Chicago home, they are one of the most creative groups working anywhere in rock today.

Still, something was missing from the band's performance at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday, the first of a sold-out two-night stand and the biggest show the group has performed here since its celebratory gig in Grant Park on July 4, 2001.

As Tweedy said early in the nearly two-hour set, the band has been on the road in support of its brilliant fourth album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," for nearly two years.

By now, the most casual fan knows the turbulent story of that disc: how it was rejected by Reprise Records, became a fan favorite when it was leaked on the Internet, and finally scored a critical and commercial triumph when it was officially released nine months later.

In fact, the tale has become so familiar that it was begging to be satirized, as another Chicago group, garage-rock pranksters the Goblins, illustrated in their new film, "I Am Trying to Take Your Cash," a parody of the Wilco documentary, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."

As a fan, I was hoping that Friday's show in the ornate and historic setting of the Louis Sullivan-designed theater would mark the beginning of the next phase of Wilco's development. As impressive an accomplishment as "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is, it is definitely time for the band to move on.

But while the group did indeed perform a handful of promising new tunes -- including an incendiary rocker called "Kicking Television" and the spare but powerful "A Magazine Called Sunset" (which was included on a recent EP released as a free download on the Net) -- the show turned out to be more of a celebration of where the band has been rather than a preview of where it might be going next. (The plan is to take an extended break immediately after these shows before returning to the recording studio.)

The retrospective set list drew from every phase of the band's career, from the rollicking alternative country of "A.M.," through the ornate "Pet Sounds"-inspired pop of "Summer Teeth," up to the more fractured art-rock of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," with assorted detours (such as the sparking "California Stars" from the Woody Guthrie tribute album, "Mermaid Avenue,") along the way.

The sometimes reticent Tweedy was as loose and comfortable as I've ever seen him, and the band -- once again expanded to a quintet with the addition of second keyboardist and computer programmer Mikael Jorgensen -- has jelled over the course of all of that road work into an incredibly sympathetic and dynamic unit.

Flailing away at his kit with a wide variety of exotic noisemakers, Glenn Kotche is rightfully winning notice as one of the most sonically inventive young drummers in rock today. And while guitarist-keyboardist Leroy Bach and bassist John Stirratt are understated presences onstage, they are consummately tasteful in providing exactly the right touches to spur singer-songwriter Tweedy on.

Nevertheless, the show never rose to the magical level of that July 4th gig at the Petrillo Music Shell (when the band played the new material that had just been rejected by Reprise), or the Riviera Theatre gig that followed the official release of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

Maybe Wilco is at its best when the chips are down and it has something to prove. Maybe it needs some time off to recharge. Or maybe it's just that the band members are also tired of this chapter of the story and as eager to move on to the next as some of us fans, in which case, we wish them good luck and godspeed.