CHICAGO — Gretchen Wilson’s not in Pocahontas anymore, but that doesn’t mean she can’t get back to her roots. And that’s just what she did Thursday night (Sept. 21) at Joe’s Bar in Chicago.
Wilson has come a long way since singing in grubby little bars in her rural hometown of Pocahontas in downstate Illinois. She’s gone from a redneck nobody to an A-list artist, and with her Redneck Revolution tour now in full force, Wilson and her band are playing mid-size arenas and a handful of county fairs just about every night. But Wilson took a break — and took the stage — at this little honky-tonk on the Windy City’s north side to give Chicago fans a chance to see her in her natural habitat.
Playing for a standing-room-only crowd of a just under 1,000, the vibe was intimate and informal. The only visual evidence that she’d become more than just a singer in a club’s house band was the eight musicians backing her. A steel guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle gave the show a true country feel — like something you might find in a little club around Nashville. And with no electric guitars in sight, the acoustic set was a peaceful reprieve from Wilson’s typical amped-up and pyro-heavy shows.
That’s not to say she didn’t rock. Wilson opened with “Homewrecker,” her voice full of enough sass to give the show a rowdy start and empower the ladies in the room to fight for their man. From there, she moved seamlessly into “When It Rains, I Pour,” a fitting tribute to the bartender she once was and the rounds of drinks being served all around the bar. Next, she sang “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today,” noting that she always likes to add that “tomorrow ain’t looking too good, either.”
Without all the bells and whistles of an arena show, Wilson’s voice was the real star of the night. Behind that tough-broad exterior is the voice of an angel. You can hear it clearly on her own hits, as well as the covers she brought with her to Joe’s. While the fans did a little watch checking and drink fetching during Wilson’s soulful cover of Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning, Heartache,” she recovered nicely during an old bluegrass tune from the 30’s. For the gospel-laced “I’m Working on a Building,” the fiddle, mandolin and upright bass players joined her at the front microphone to pay homage to the traditional music style inspired by the Carter Family and others. “Now that was country, right there,” Wilson said.
And what set list would be complete without songs of chewing tobacco, Jack Daniels, fried chicken and Merle Haggard? Wilson picked her songs well, choosing the ones everyone could sing along with. “Skoal Ring,” “All Jacked Up,” “California Girls” and “Politically Uncorrect” were the highlights of her too-short set. “Redneck Woman,” a must-have for every show, made for an enthusiastic but expected encore.
Dressed in what has become her stage uniform — jeans, stilettos, dog tag necklace and a black bustier — she politely declined someone’s offer of a black cowboy hat. Wilson tried it on, then said, “C’mon. That’s not me. That’s Terri Clark.”
Even though Wilson puts on a topnotch live show no matter where she performs, she seemed to feel very much at home on the tiny stage just a few feet off the ground. And she seemed genuinely grateful to the fans and the local radio station that brought them all together.
The event was a private performance just for listeners of Chicago radio station WUSN (US99). Although platinum-selling artists seldom perform in small bars, the station’s Live Country concert series has featured many major acts, including Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood and Jo Dee Messina.
Wilson’s Redneck Revolution tour continues through December, with stops along the way to promote her autobiography Redneck Woman: Stories From My Life due out in early November.