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Live Review and Photo Gallery: Wilco at Auditorium Theatre • Chicago

| April 26, 2022


Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 20th Anniversary

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, IL

April 24, 2022

Review by Jeffrey Kotthoff; Additional photos by Jeff Elbel and photos courtesy of Auditorium Theatre/Andy Argyrakis

Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was born of dysfunction and chaos. For most bands, the idea of looking back and celebrating what by all accounts was an extremely difficult period would be an exercise in masochism. For Wilco, it has meant a short string of shows in NYC, a just-announced 11LP box set, and specialized merchandise ranging from socks sporting the Marina City twin towers, Wilc-O’s cinnamon cereal, and even a “Jesus, Don’t Cry” pilsener beer courtesy of Great Central Brewing. But before the gold rush, there were great growing pains.

2002 found the band embroiled in squabbles, addiction, and mental and physical health breakdowns. Moreover, the band’s two primary songwriters Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett were at loggerheads over the sonic direction their new record would take. By the time the smoke cleared, Bennet was gone, the band’s longtime drummer Ken Coomer had been replaced by Glenn Kotche, the album had been rejected by Reprise Records (Warner Brothers’ subsidiary), and the band was dropped from their label. After proving the album’s value by streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from the band’s own Wilcoworld website, Wilco was subsequently re-signed to an imprint of Warner Brothers, the same label that rejected the record in the first place. Plus, the whole thing was caught on film, in glorious black and white for everyone to revisit at their convenience. That the band survived, and the album became the triumph that it is, is nothing short of miraculous.

So, when Wilco made the surprising announcement they’d play a short run of shows celebrating the record, the promise was to present a faithful live recreation, “and that’s it.” At the band’s final concert of a three-night stand at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater, they did just that. However, Wilco also proved not only how resilient the songs are, but how versatile the band has become at playing them. Fans that saw Wilco play in 2002 would’ve found a different band gamely fighting for its life on stage. Wilco in 2022 finds itself playing these songs almost effortlessly, with its lineup of Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen, Patrick Sansone, and Nels Cline intact and unchanged since 2004.

Fleshed out by a three-piece horn section and string quartet The Magnificent Strings, the performance began with Tweedy emerging from behind the stage curtain. Switching on a shortwave radio perched at the edge of the stage, Tweedy triggered the static and disembodied voice reciting “Yankee  – Hotel  – Foxtrot”. With the idea the band was essentially pressing play on a metaphysical stereo and recreating the record from start to finish, there was virtually no acknowledgment from the stage to the audience during the performance. Typically prone to jokes and wry humor, Tweedy in particular played it straight throughout the main set. He guided the band and accompanying musicians through each album track with everything from punches in the air to actually conducting. The band was spot on in its delivery, down to the extended noise passages and sonic glitches. This made for both a fascinating and yet strangely familiar performance. As a listener, you always knew what was next. Twenty years on, if you’re a Wilco fan every note is part of your musical DNA.

For the encore, the band re-emerged with a visibly relieved Tweedy finally acknowledging the audience. The songwriter thanked his fans for joining an experience he called both “emotional and weird.” After a lengthy and heartfelt introduction of the band and accompanying musicians (including a dog that was unseen to the audience but apparently waiting in the stage wings), Wilco played a cover of Bill Fay’s “Be Not So Fearful.” Tweedy and the band have performed the song many times over the years, and it has always held great power to comfort during uncertain times. Tweedy also thanked the late (and arguably great) Jay Bennett for his contributions to Wilco and the album they were celebrating. Given the pair’s acrimonious parting in 2002, it was a kindhearted gesture that was warmly received by the audience. Tweedy said the band wanted to close the show by playing some songs that were favorites of theirs from Jay’s time in Wilco. The evening closed with raucous versions of “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”.

As recently as last week, Tweedy was quoted in The Chicago Tribune as saying how much the album’s initial rejection “really hurt his feelings.” Nostalgia can be strange, especially when some wounds never truly heal. At the end of the final Auditorium Theatre performance, played to a sold-out room and a standing ovation, smile on his face, it seemed Tweedy had finally found some closure.


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