Night two of Wilco’s Pageant residency began with an opening sequence that smartly supplemented and reshuffled the set list from night one and ended with Jeff Tweedy thanking the pit for keeping their shirts on. In between, the band made an argument for the strengths and weaknesses of their catalogue and for their place near the top of whatever list of great American rock bands one might be silly enough to make.
But before the crowd would get there—and if this is a “dad rock” crowd, then dudes are reproducing way too early—there was opener Retribution Gospel Choir, a trio led by Low’s Alan Sparhawk on over-the-top over-driven guitar, working the sheets of spazz sound through the doom and gloom of his themes. Sparhawk started coyly, with “Hatchet,” one of Low’s catchiest tunes, then got down to the stoner riffage and preacher wails that led some to wonder aloud if what they were hearing was Christian Rock. In a sense, yes, if a doomsday cult that worships at the altar of feedback and stuttering, improvised jams counts as Christian Rock.
At times the set drove home the heavy hooks and the nightmarish points, but the main problem is lack of material; these songs don’t add up to a fully riveting half hour set. The strongest numbers, like “Knew You Well” and “Breaker,” were undercut by the dirges, and a teeth-on-guitar-strings closing spasm wasn’t about to keep a few stray boos at bay. This wasn’t the unmitigated disaster of way-back-when Wilco-at-the-Pageant opener Grand Ulena, but it couldn’t have been much fun for Sparhawk.
Starting with “Via Chicago,” Tweedy’s opening guitar strums on his lovely parlor-size Martin guitar sounded like an invitation. He’s coming home, sure, and his father was up in the VIP box just above me in the balcony, but Jeff sings the song with the estranged intimacy of a middle-aged man who may not even know what home is anymore. Then a too-quick, premature ejaculation of strobes and the scattershot drums of Glenn Kotche on tune’s first break, before returning to the narrative and building through Nels Cline’s beautiful, piano-like guitar chords to a just right climax.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” followed with mad lib lyrics and precise, celeste-like plinks from Kotche and a nearly atonal droning end. Two of Tweedy’s most beautiful and airy melodies followed, “You Are My Face” and “Muzzle of Bees,” with Clines on Danolectro guitar and Tweedy, wearing a lime sherbet jacket and playing his old Gibson SG, cupping the microphone and gesturing to the audience on the lines “half is you, half is me.”
A girl at the front of the dance floor broke into dog-frightening squeals when keyboardist Pat Sansone stepped forward to play guitar on “Handshake Drugs.” “This has never happened before,” Tweedy said. I wouldn’t be so sure, though it probably wasn’t Sansone’s so-bad-it’s-good ABBA haircut that inspired the shrieks. “Handshake Drugs” is played with pure fun, then rising up at the end for a three-way guitar conversation, lit up in silhouettes against the darkened stage.
On “Shot in the Arm” the band finally, really gets to rocking, not just playing rock music, but genuinely rocking, with six ridiculously talented musicians all seeming to head in six different directions at once, but still arriving at the same place, the same groove. “Kamera,” not played on night one, followed, but leading into the stop-on-dime-and-pivot “War on War,” the tune lacked focused, blurring away. The same could be said for “Jesus Etc,” but not for “Impossible Germany,” which is really Cline's song, with his fractured, dizzying Tom Verlaine-esque leads, urged forward like he had broken into Tweedy’s medicine cabinet, crushed up and snorted the lot, and then put that jagged high into a solo.
Stirratt and Tweedy swapped instruments and, yes, John got to sing the one and only song he’s ever written start to finish for the band: “It’s Just that Simple,” from the band’s first album. His voice, like Tweedy’s, has improved with age, and his harmonies and bass playing have always been the band’s most underrated weapons. Seeing Tweedy play bass off to the side of the stage, while Stirratt took the spotlight, was sweet and touching. “Misunderstood” was not. Tweedy is very good at embodying the different modes of his songs, and on “Misunderstood,” he moved from strung-out dream-state to hoarse venom, spewing the “THANK YOU ALL FOR NOTHING” refrain with some 75 “NOTHING”s that built with excruciating force. The segue into the country ditty “Don’t Forget the Flowers” didn’t work, mostly because the song itself has never really worked, and this version of the band wouldn’t be interested in reinventing it even if they wanted to.
But the rapt sing-a-long “California Stars” flowed nicely into the quirky funk of “Can’t Stand It,” into “Theologians,” into the main set’s final number “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” As Tweedy laid into his guitar strings, Kotche stoop up on his drums and crashed down for the last chorus.
The first encore began with another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot number, the diffuse, subdued “Poor Places” which segued into that album’s last song, “Reservations.” YHF seemed to be on Tweedy’s mind, as he turned to it again and again through the night, though the encore closed with as strong and wild a version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” as I’ve ever heard. It’s a song that’s barely listenable on record; on stage it captures everything the band hopes to be.
The drum tech, who would later don a horse’s head to play cow bell, didn’t need to urge the room to a second encore, but Tweedy seemed genuinely moved by the response. “It’s good to be back home,” he said, before starting the Lou Reed “Heroin” riff of “Always In Love.” The anti-domestic duties vent “I Hate It Here” turned into a fun shout-a-long and “Walken” was all Sesame Street bounce, with Clines on lap steel guitar, at least until he fell off his stool, his feet flying in the air. Tweedy declared his East Side pride before the inevitable “Casino Queen,” which still rocks, though not with the wild, springy quality of “Hoodoo Voodoo,” which was probably intended to end the night. But the band came back for a one-song, third encore: an easy-grooving, perfectly celebratory “Late Greats.” And with their 26th song of the night, that they very much were.
Setlist: 1. Via Chicago 2. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart 3. You Are My Face 4. Muzzle Of Bees 5. Handshake Drugs 6. A Shot In The Arm 7. Kamera 8. War On War 9. Jesus, Etc. 10. Impossible Germany 11. It's Just That Simple 12. Misunderstood 13. Forget The Flowers 14. California Stars 15. Can't Stand It 16. Theologians 17. I'm The Man Who Loves You
Encore one: 18. Poor Places 19. Reservations 20. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Encore two: 21. I'm Always In Love 22. Hate It Here 23. Walken 24. Casino Queen 25. Hoodoo Voodoo 26. Late Greats