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REVIEW: Wilco kicks off sold-out residency at the Riviera

Midway through “Via Chicago,” the song Wilco used to open its six-night residency at the Riviera on Friday, two songs collided at once: One, a steady and gently strummed melody sung in harmony by leader Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt, and the second, a lighting crack that unleashed cascading disorder by everyone else. The first time it happened, you could feel the room jump. Yet no one on the stage flinched, and both opposing forces sailed forward, perfectly synced.

There sums up the ultimate power of this band that is now taking note of its 20th year. The Wilco banner has meant different things to different people over those years — alt-country near the beginning, avant-pop around the middle, and jam-friendly in recent years — but none of those labels really describe what the band is today. Which is a set of musicians so deft they approach songs from the side door, where unexpected flourishes and compounding textures and brief musical ideas burst inside the song, transporting the emotional depth of what is otherwise a simple melody or lyric.

Ten years ago an argument could be made that some of this sounded crowbarred into the music, but in its current moment, the band members play like branches from the same root. True, the Riviera has been home to dozens of Wilco shows since the 1990s — “John and I have been working here for 20 years,” Tweedy said. “And these other guys have put in a pretty good shift also.” (The band played a similar five-night residency at the Riviera in 2008.)

The connection showed Friday in songs like a brawnier “Handshake Drugs,” with its big stomping beat, guitarist Nels Cline injecting fills of notes, and Tweedy unstrapping an acoustic guitar and exchanging it for an electric one, which he used to repeatedly squeeze out a single note until the lights went dark and the band rumbled together until finding their way out through a simple guitar strum.

The band played with precision but never sounded technical. Drummer Glenn Kotche handled mallets to make big statements on songs like “Kamera,” and his interchanging rhythms always kept intensity at the breaking point, while Stirratt played musical counter-melodies on his bass.

The band is celebrating the anniversary with “Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014,” a four-CD box set of rarities, demos, and lost recordings. Some of those songs showed up Friday, such as “Just a Kid,” a blast of power-pop, and “Childlike and Evergreen,” which Tweedy played solo.

The two-hour, 10-minute show ended with a four-song suite of acoustic songs, which brought the band to the edge of the stage. Pat Sansone switched to banjo, Mikael Jorgensen from keyboards to a melodica, Cline to a pedal steel guitar, and Stirratt to a 12-string bass. Up to this point the audience had already taken ownership of the music, periodically accompanying the band with handclaps and vocals.

But for these songs, both ends of the stage quieted to sing together. “California Stars” became an ending sing-along, but just before then Tweedy extended “The Thanks I Get” to get the audience to join him to softly sing: “We can make it better.” The room grew quiet and they did. “I don’t think we can make it better,” than that, he said.

Opening Friday’s show was Split Single, a new project from longtime Chicago musician and songwriter Jason Narducy who has logged the last few years serving bass guitar duty for Bob Mould and Superchunk. His new five-piece band sprinted through a set of infectious power-pop and brittle ’90s punk, with singer Nora O’Connor helping double the vocal intensity. Songwriter-guitarist Steve Dawson of Dolly Varden hammered out the riffs and provided a sharp counterpoint to Narducy, who steered the ship with intensity.

Setlist:

Via Chicago

The Whole Love

I Must Be High

Handshake Drugs

Wishful Thinking

Hotel Arizona

Either Way

Childlike and Evergreen

Country Disappeared

Forget the Flowers

Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again)

Hummingbird

On and On and On

One By One

A Magazine Called Sunset

Kamera

How To Fight Loneliness

Theologians

I’m Always in Love

I’m the Man Who Loves You

Dawned on Me

Hate it Here

Kingpin

Just a Kid

Outtasite (Outta Mind)

Outta Mind (Outta Sight)

Art of Almost

The Thanks I Get

California Stars

Mark Guarino is a local freelance writer.