“It’s a very exhaustive way to approach a string of shows,” Jeff Tweedy says backstage at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre, where Wilco have pledged to play every song from all of their albums during a five-night homestand. “This lineup has focused on the last few records,” he says, just before taking the stage on the third night. “And we’ve been getting a lot of requests for songs from the first three.”
Earlier that day at soundcheck, it was clear that the band really hadn’t tackled the older songs in a while, as it struggled through “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again)” and “We’re Just Friends,” from 1999’s Summerteeth. “I don’t ever remember ‘We’re Just Friends’ doing that,” Tweedy said to no one in particular, strumming his vintage acoustic guitar. “Let’s do it again.” But after they ran through the chorus a half-dozen times, it sounded just right. “It was total muscle memory,” said bassist John Stirratt.
Tickets for Wilco’s run at the famously dilapidated 2,300-capacity theater, which opened as a movie palace in 1917, sold out right away, at thirty-five dollars a pop. The shows kicked off a monthlong tour, which is the band’s preferred length these days. “We try not to go out for more than three weeks,” says Tweedy. “It’s not very good for you.”
Over the five nights, Wilco tackled ninety-six songs — including stuff from the 2003 More Like the Moon EP and from the Mermaid Avenue discs. (No new songs, though the band plans to go into the studio later this year.) Tonight’s set — which features Andrew Bird on violin and a three-piece brass section — includes rarities like “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard” and “Box Full of Letters,” as well as more-familiar cuts from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The fan fave “Handshake Drugs” morphs from a chilled-out folk song into a strutting, near-funk groove, sending guitarist Nels Cline into convulsions.
Pre-show, the band snacks on seafood curry and jasmine rice while roadies tap a keg of the hard-to-get Wisconsin microbrew New Glarus. (“We discovered it at a venue in Milwaukee,” says Stirratt.) Tweedy, who’s sipping sparkling water and munching chips, drives each night from his nearby home. And he’s saving his fitness routine for the road. “I’ll usually go for a hike or a run before the show,” he says. The tour, which wraps on March 9th, includes a stop at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one of Tweedy’s favorite venues. “It’s probably the only place that Bob Wills and the Sex Pistols both played,” he says. “Maybe there’s another place like that, but I don’t know it.”
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