Monday, December 26, 2011

However close we get sometimes

Riviera marquee, Wilco 12/13/2011

The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth shows of Christmas all belonged to Wilco. In 2008, the band played their legendary five-night Winter Residency in Chicago. In 2011, they did something similar: five shows at increasingly smaller venues. Monday night's show was at the Civic Opera House, home of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, capacity 3,458. By the following Sunday's finale, they were playing the 507-person Lincoln Hall.

Through the generosity and cooperation of others, much refreshing of ticket websites, and pinch of sheer luck, I managed tickets to all five shows. I set up camp at Paul's, and spend a great week in the company of friends. In addition to the shows, I managed to hit all of my top Chicago eateries, the MOCA for Andrew Bird's Sonic Arboretum exhibit, and two movies that show no sign of coming to Madison anytime soon.

The concerts, of course, were the week's main events. They all had their own special features: the faux snowfall and special guests Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe at the Civic Opera House, adding an unplanned (or at least not-on-the-written-setlist) "I'm a Wheel" to the end of the Riv show, a shirtless Josh on cowbell at the Vic, the sweaty rock show vibe of the Metro, the almost-unnerving intimacy of Lincoln Hall. I don't think I'd ever seen Wilco at a 500-person venue. There was plenty of conversation between the band and audience, and the room was quiet enough (at least for most of the first set) to hear the final notes of every song.

Throughout the five shows (spanning seven nights), the band went above and beyond expectations. The shrinking hometown venues were gimmick enough, if they needed one, but they also played ninety-nine different songs over those five evenings. They also bought coffee for the line of fans waiting outside in the cold before the Riviera, Vic, and Metro shows ... although Jeff joked that we'd be billed later.

To sum it all up: this was an excellent way to spend a week in mid-December. Any time Wilco wants to play five shows in Chicago, I'll do my best to be there. Even if/especially if it comes on the heels of a few other shows of interest.

The Eight Shows of Christmas concluded my concertgoing for 2011. Next week, it's time to recap - music, books, and travel - and look ahead to 2012.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Maybe you'll rest sometime

Bon Iver at the Orpheum

Over the past ten days, I have seen eight concerts. That's a pretty intense pace even for me, so I find myself both sorry that it's over and relieved to have some free time. It's certainly been a hell of a mid-December.

The Eight Shows of Christmas began on December 9th, when I saw Wilco in Milwaukee. It wasn't long since I last saw the band - they played Madison just two months prior. Despite the primo seats in Madison, I think I enjoyed Milwaukee a little more. The show was loud and featured a fantastic encore bookended by Outta Mind (Outta Site) and Outtasite (Outta Mind) - two versions of the same song, one complete with a "Jingle Bells" outro. Meeting up with friends for my first meal at Mader's and belting out "Who Stole the Kishka" at the Old German Beer Hall before the show set the tone for the night, and the week-plus to come.

Show Two was the next night: Bon Iver at the Orpheum in Madison. It was my first show at the refurbished Orpheum: new lower stage, and the floor seats nearly gone. This was a decidedly different feel from the small pit/seven-foot-stage Orpheum with which I was familiar. As far as I'm concerned, the changes are all to the good. Once again this was a sort of homecoming for the band; their first show back in Wisconsin since the tour began. The Madison show was sandwiched between Bon Iver playing the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, and two more arena shows in Eau Claire. Seeing the band in a relatively intimate theater, on the heels of four Grammy nominations, was a wonderful opportunity. The setlist wasn't markedly different from the shows I saw at the Riverside this summer, but the 9-piece band's songs seemed looser and less mathematically precise. There was more give and take. The version of "Blood Bank" that this lineup plays has become my favorite song to hear live, and the Madison performance absolutely delivered. The solo "Re:Stacks" felt more emotionally naked than ever, and we were close enough to see every detail.

Show Three was the following night: Ryan Adams at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago. I hadn't seen a Ryan Adams show since 2007 at the Barrymore, and the setting was quite different. 2007 was in a 900-capacity general admission theater, and 2011 was in a 2300-capacity opera house. Ryan was solo this time, and cycled between two guitar stations and a piano. He spent most of the show sitting, and even the "fast" album songs he played were reworked into slower, softer arrangements. He also talked to the audience - a lot. Possibly too much. My favorite parts of the show were old favorites like "Sylvia Plath" and "Come Pick Me Up," and the two improvised songs about the evening that Ryan composed in situ.