Friday, July 20, 2007
The sky was anything but blue and, er, sky in Atlanta on a Tuesday night in June, but that didn’t prevent fans from pouring into Chastain Park Amphitheater to see Wilco at work. Ponchos sold for five bucks, beer sold for six, and frontman Jeff Tweedy focused on the non-stop rain to punctuate his between-song banter. “You guys all right?” he asked as the downpour hit an apex. “You’re gonna be just fine,” he answered.
If Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s sixth album, is any indication, feeling just fine is a theme Tweedy knows well. He’s chilled out both sonically and medicinally from the handshake drugs of 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, now ready to look up, lean back and take a breath. In a way, Sky Blue Sky is a return to form, combining the folkier aspects of 1995 debut A.M. with a couple new guitar tricks (or new guitarists: Nels Cline, Pat Sansone).
The Chicago sextet began the hour-and-a-half set with the first four tracks from Sky in sequential order, and the lyrical elements fit the mood just right. “Maybe the sun will shine today,” Tweedy sang on the sublime “Either Way.” “The clouds will blow away.” Tweedy paused after four songs to further comment on the weather. “You’re no longer the real fans,” he said, referring to the crowd in the two front rows, which happened to be covered by the stage’s overhang. “Stand in the rain to prove your love to Wilco.” Tweedy then vowed to play until the rain stopped before remarking, “I’m gonna stop talking now to maximize the rock.”
The band moved into the familiar, subtle opening notes and drum strikes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Other than a fair amount of applause during the guitar jamming outro of Sky’s “Impossible Germany” (the third song of the set), it seemed the crowd was waiting all along to hear the older material. Before Wilco hit the synthesized keyboard intro of “Jesus, Etc.”, Tweedy delivered a shout-out. “This song is dedicated to you,” he paused. “Actually, all of the songs so far have been dedicated to you.” If his statement had been completely accurate, the set might have contained a few more Wilco classics, as the crowd’s enthusiasm appeared to ebb and flow between new and old songs. Percussionist Glenn Kotche’s kick drum sported Sky Blue Sky’s flock-of-birds cover art, and the band played eight of the 12 tracks on the album.
Though it’s unfair to criticize Wilco for showcasing its new tracks, a miscue at the end of the set exemplified the separation between band and audience. Tweedy mentioned “coming right back” after visiting the “libation station,” which didn’t register as a signal to applaud for an encore. Wilco left the stage and quickly returned. “I ruined the encore,” he laughed. The band members made up for it as they plowed through favorites “Via Chicago” and an extended version of the already 10-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” The crowd finally caught on as the band left the stage once again and were welcomed back with synchronized handclaps. Wilco finished up with “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Outta Mind, Outta Sight,” two more beloved back-catalog songs. As Tweedy promised, the show ended and the rain ceased.