Headache's gone


June 14, 2004

BY Jim DeRogatis Pop Music Critic

A few weeks ago, Wilco's future looked uncertain and anything but promising.

As the Chicago band prepared to release its difficult new album "A Ghost Is Born," bandleader Jeff Tweedy checked in to a local rehab clinic to fight a desperate battle with depression, anxiety and an addiction to painkillers formed in an effort to battle chronic migraines.

In addition to ramping up for the June 22 release of the new album, the sold-out show at the Vic Theatre on Saturday night was intended to introduce yet another lineup for the ever-shifting band, and to assure the group's devoted hometown following that Tweedy and Wilco are alive and well.

In fact, the 37-year-old singer and his band never sounded better.

The 17 songs in the sextet's main set concentrated almost exclusively on the arty, fractured songs from its last album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and the tunes from "A Ghost Is Born."

On the recording, many of the new songs have a subdued, almost somnambulant vibe. But in concert, they took on a fiery energy and a celebratory spirit.

The current lineup of Wilco is appropriately divided between the art-rockers on stage right (computer programmer and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and guitarist Nels Cline) and the power-pop/roots-rockers on stage left (veteran bassist and backing vocalist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, Stirratt's bandmate in his side group the Autumn Defense). Tweedy and the astoundingly deft and subtle drummer Glenn Kotche bridge these two worlds in the middle.

On paper, this combination of diverse attitudes and varied instrumental approaches might seem awkward. But in practice, it worked brilliantly, giving Wilco the most complex and rewarding sound of its career.

Cline was an especially valuable addition, adding textured guitar lines that sounded like cello or violin in quieter songs such as "Via Chicago" and "Hummingbird," and playing explosive, strangled solos that recalled the late Robert Quine on heavier tunes such as "Handshake Drugs" and "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," which both climaxed in ferocious guitar duels with Tweedy.

Looking more fit and cheerful than he has in years, Tweedy sang with renewed power and musicality. He movingly dedicated a song to his wife, Sue Miller; danced about the stage as the group soared during instrumental breaks, and even put down his guitar for a tune to lean into the crowd and sing the beautiful new "Hummingbird" to an adoring fan who knew every word (no doubt having downloaded the song in advance from the Internet, as the band has encouraged its fans to do).

Tweedy ended the tune by giving the woman a warm hug, a gesture symbolic of his appreciation for the flood of good wishes fans sent his way during his recent troubles, and their willingness to follow Wilco through its many detours and growing pains.

Dedicated to defying expectations, the group ended the show on a quiet note after devoting the first two of its three well-deserved encores to more rollicking material. "Take the guitar player for a ride / 'Cause he ain't never been satisfied," Tweedy sang during the haunting "Misunderstood." "He feels he owes some kinda debt / Be years before he gets over it."

Tweedy has said that "A Ghost Is Born" is an album inspired by his search for identity. By that, he seems to mean the struggle to balance his own desire to grow as a songwriter and a musician with the expectations of his fans, who would love to hear more party-down roots-rock a la "Casino Queen" (thankfully absent from Saturday's set).

The bandleader's performance at the Vic indicated that he's finally gotten over that feeling of being indebted to his fans' expectations. And the show certainly satisfied both the performers and the audience.

Opening for Wilco was the Chicago power-pop quartet the M's. The group once again impressed with its accomplished musicianship and spot-on, three-part harmonies, but its overly long set underscored a pressing need to write more distinctive and memorable songs.