Even after all these years, Wilco is still finding new ways to surprise its hometown fans. The group's latest tip of the cap to Chicago arrives in the form of a five-show residency that sees the long-running crew performing in venues it's never properly visited (Metro, Civic Opera House, Lincoln Hall), has long since outgrown (the Vic) or has a well-documented affinity for (the Riviera).
In advance of the historic round of gigs, bassist John Stirratt, 44, (the group's lone remaining original member besides singer Jeff Tweedy) opened up about the band's approach to residencies, the night he knew Wilco had made it big and why the band's rider is proof they're no longer rock and roll.
Do you find it difficult to keep up your endurance when you have a stretch of shows like this?
Oh, absolutely. I'm a little daunted by it right now. I think it will be a challenge, but knowing there's a month off afterward makes it better, I think.
How does your approach change when you're playing a series of shows in one city like this?
We haven't really sat down and discussed the set list or anything like that, but it seems we'd need to touch on a lot of rarities and things like that, which we've kind of done on this tour anyway. We're sort of to the stage where ... we realize people have heard "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" many times—even if they're casual Wilco fans.
You played your first gig at the Vic on June 16, 1995. Do you have any memories of that show?
I do. After that show we returned to Lounge Ax and I just had that feeling that we had really made it. The Vic seemed so large; all I could think was, "Are we going to sell this out?" I doubt we did, but I think we put a respectable number of people in there. I remember thinking, "God, if we're playing places like this what else could possibly happen." I also remember it being filmed and Jeff [Tweedy] wearing a cowboy hat.
You have quite a history with the Riv, including a December 2008 residency where you played every song in your catalog. How challenging was it to go back and learn the material for that stretch of shows?
Me and Jeff could kind of rely on muscle memory a little bit. It's in there in a weird way; it's in your DNA. The new guys did a lot of work and sort of masterfully covered all of the parts. I think this lineup more than any other in the history of the band has real ownership of even the old material. There are many songs this lineup played that even the original lineups didn't play at the time.
I'm surprised you guys don't have more of a history with the Metro.
Yeah, I never played there. I've seen a thousand shows there, but to never have played there is crazy, especially knowing [Metro founder and owner] Joe [Shanahan] and everything.
Has it been awhile since you've played a room that size?
In Prague or in Croatia we'll play places that are about that size, and it's a gas. So often these days we're doing these theaters ... where it's completely quiet and everyone's seated with legs crossed. I think we've gotten pretty good at playing in those circumstances, but everyone in the band comes from a general admission, on-the-floor-rock-club background.
You're playing such radically different spaces for this residency. Are you tailoring your set to each room in some way?
I would imagine the Civic is going to be a lot louder than Lincoln Hall. I'm not predicting an acoustic show or anything, but just the size of the band is so outsized for the venue I think something radical might have to be done for that gig. I think with the Metro we can jam on that stage and get loud if we need to. I've certainly seen some very loud bands on that stage over the years, so I sort of expected to rock there.
What's one essential item you have on your rider these days?
I guess lemons to make tea. Lately, Vosges Chocolate has been on the rider, which is very much a luxury. What else? Certain types of wine, I would say as well, like a good sauvignon blanc.
How do you think you would have answered that same question prior to that Vic show back in '95?
Oh god. I think I would have tried to be a little more rock and roll, but I think the idea of actually getting a bottle of liquor was probably out of the question then. Just getting the right beer I think would have been the answer to that. Now we're talking about gourmet chocolate and wine, so we're officially not rock and roll anymore, I guess [laughs].
Wilco When and where: 7:30 p.m. Monday at Civic Opera House; 8 p.m. Tuesday at Riviera Theatre; 8 p.m. Thursday at Vic Theatre; 8 p.m. Friday at Metro; 8 p.m. Sunday at Lincoln Hall Tickets: Sold out