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For the third time, Wilco took over the Hard Rock Hotel and brought a handful or two of friends to play some music, connect with old friends, and turn strangers into new friends. Of course, they’ve had some experience doing this, when their tightly-curated Solid Sound Festival kicked off in 2010 and then the next year became an every other year tradition. Think of that as the regular season, whereas the Cancún-based Sky Blue Sky is more of a hot stove edition- a bit looser, lesser in scale, and a wind-down to the year rather than gearing up for the annual road grind.
At least this year the event wasn’t fraught with anxieties and tensions running high over the Omicron threat, with a vocal group unwilling or unable to risk quarantine if they tested positive before leaving for home and calling for a complete cancellation and refund. Thankfully there was none of that, but certainly some Wilco fans decided that Sky Blue Sky wasn’t going to be part of their plans going forward.
This year the festival was pulled forward a few weeks into December from it’s usual MLK weekend date in January, possibly to accommodate Jeff Tweedy’s impending hip replacement surgery (Jeff, if you are reading this and have any questions, as a two-time veteran I’m here for you) and while the icy grip of winter hasn’t really started to throttle the northern bits of the country, it was still very nice to spend your days in mid-80s sunny weather and swim in crystal clear Caribbean waters. And unlike other music festivals, there are no stage overlaps, only three stages in total, and plenty of downtime for attendees to either hang by the beach or multitudes of pools, head out on one of the many excursions offered as extras, or be a bit active and play tennis, hit the waterpark, or the well-equipped fitness center. After all, all inclusive means all the food and drink you want, so it’s nice to be able to counter that a little bit during the day. Or, you could just lounge in the pool and wade over to the swim up bar for another piña colada. No one is refereeing your personal choices but you; during the second Wilco set Tweedy asked if anyone had a sunburn. “My neighbor is a skin doctor; he frowns on that. If you weren’t using sunscreen, that’s on you. You’re an adult” he gently chided.
Other aspects of the festival were familiar, from the crowd-sourced beer share where people bring beers or ciders that represent their favorites from back home, the balcony decoration contest (which frankly needs a bit more communication as to the actual winners!), the mezcal tasting once again hosted by Nels Cline and John Stirratt, the yoga classes in the morning (don’t ask me details about that), and the Positive Legacy charity auction with custom art, signed instruments and photos and other ephemera on the auctioneer’s block to raise money that benefits the local people and their environment. Cline also did an improv guitar workout with a short Q &A afterwards that was really quite impressive. He played his trusty black Jazzmaster as well as a resonator guitar aptly named Mavis, and later divulged that his favorite color is red.
The Wilco shows (three of them, Tweedy Band played on the third day) are always a clear highlight and likely the main reason people head down here; it’s not a cheap ticket and Wilco does have a pretty strong cadre of diehard fans. And the bonus is that there are never any song repeats. There have been some grumblings amongst diehards that the Wilco set lists have become a bit predictable as of late, with a hefty chunk of new material from the last one to three records, and then the rest pulled from a 20 or 30 song bunch that varies a bit from night to night. It’s a complaint that I’ve heard from other veteran bands with a big discography (cough cough, looking at you, Robert Pollard) but for Sky Blue Sky and Solid Sound, it’s a pretty ironclad guarantee that some rarities will be pulled from the dusty top shelf.
The first night took a little twist as the songs rolled out, and after several were played Tweedy asked the crowd what the theme was. Someone named Alex guessed correctly that it was lead album tracks. Tweedy then told Kevin to get his phone out as they would give him accolades and he could record it, a bit of a turn from several years back when Jeff was not a fan of phones out at all. The show ended a bit sooner than most would have expected, the crew getting guitars out for an encore that never occurred. Later it was divulged via a social media post by Susie Miller, Jeff’s wife, that he was feeling the effects of heat exhaustion and needed some medical attention. No worries, there’s plenty more Wilco ahead.
The second set was way more country-flecked; Cruel Country was a standout record with a long nod towards the works of Williams and Perkins and Snow and Cash but it’s not like Wilco never dug up rich soil with their shovels in that patch before. Along with the half-dozen from Cruel Country, two gems from Being There shone brightly (“Forget The Flowers” and “Someday Soon”) and of course they couldn’t forget Mermaid Avenue, the Woody Guthrie-penned lyrics that Wilco and Billy Bragg wrote music for. “Hesitating Beauty” and the well-worn chestnut “California Stars” made an appearance, though “Airline To Heaven” would have slotted in nicely for the first day’s lead track set. Also missing was Stirratt’s “It’s Just That Simple,” the only non-Tweedy lead vocal in the Wilco canon and a sublime dive into prime C&W territory. It was on the set list but not played. In true Wilco fashion, they are constantly pulling and stretching and tweaking the songs, and Cruel Country’s “Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull” mutated from a strummy upbeat 4/4 song into a searing guitar duel between Cline and Pat Sansone, two six string masters with different styles who form a delicious Reese’s peanut butter cup flavor together.
Tweedy prefaced “Kingpin” by remarking about the really stressful things happening in the world that one can’t control and how nice it is to be able to convene as one, with music the universal binding agent. The encore was full of bangers that resonate with every Wilco fan, the plangent “Red Eyed and Blue” segueing seamlessly into “I Got You,” the barn burner of “Casino Queen” and the impromptu second encore of the rave up “I’m A Wheel.” Wilco certainly made sure no one was wondering what was up with that set.
The third and final set was in some ways the loosest. The band certainly has nothing to prove and while this night typically rolls out with a bunch of guest appearances, Cate Le Bon and Kevin Morby were the sole cameos. Nothing can top last year’s set with the Mavis Staples capper, along with appearances from Stephen Malkmus, Britt Daniel, and Kurt Vile. Coming out of the gates with “Handshake Drugs” is a bold statement, and the 20-odd songs that followed were just as vital. Though Wilco has always clearly been Tweedy’s band and there has been a handful of people in and out of the lineup since the band started nearly 30 years ago, it’s a bit surprising to realize that this current lineup has been stable for 20 years, when both Cline and Sansone joined for the tour for A Ghost Is Born.
Like the best bands, everyone knows their role and what they need to do in service of the song. Sansone is clearly highly skilled at a variety of instruments but sticks in the pocket for the most part, occasionally unleashing some windmills as the mood moved him. Cline totally reworked his usual solo during “Impossible Germany” on the first night, attenuating the attack and going full modal jazz. It’s always a treat to watch him create sonic sculptures so effortlessly. Mikael Jorgensen is tucked back behind Cline with a couple of banks of keyboards and while he’s not a visual focus, the textures and washes he subtly adds are critical. The engine of the band remains Glenn Kotche, a marvelously inventive drummer/percussionist who led a workshop to create your own noisemaker from discarded caps and nylon and gave Tweedy an opportunity for some comedic banter (“OK, everybody with their crafts that they made with Glenn…let’s hear them before they get confiscated.”) Stirratt has been the only other Wilco member from the get-go, following Jeff from the Uncle Tupelo days and his playing and singing often get overlooked by the flashier parts of the band. Dusting off “Art Of Almost” was a vibrant reminder of what he brings on a routine basis.
A reminder that rock shows take a lot more than just the people you see on stage was driven home towards the of the set, when Wilco’s live sound engineer Stan Doty received the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award as he retired from duty and was at the event as a guest of the band. His largesse was a trophy with a goat on top, Greatest of All Time emblazoned on it. Big hugs and smiles all around. Towards the end, Tweedy asked the crowd who would be returning for another of these, “if they have us.” And that’s a good question; will Cloud 9 re-up the three event contract? The crowd did feel a bit dead at times and maybe it was a combo of being out in the sun all day, the endless supply of Modelos and Coronas just seconds away, and/or a minority of attendees who like Wilco just fine but aren’t fanatics and the lure of a warm weather pre-holiday trip was foremost on their agenda. Time will tell.
Of course there was a whole lot more music other than Wilco on offer. Pretty much all the acts were Wilco-adjacent, unlike Solid Sound where the total number of acts is a lot higher and Wilco can take some riskier programming choices such as The Shaggs, Charles Lloyd, Shabazz Palaces or Angel Bat Dawid. A few were Solid Sound vets; Sylvan Esso brought the dance moves and grooves with both their opening day set as well as late night DJ set. Kevin Morby continues to hone his craft and successfully channeled the Rolling Thunder Revue sound of mid-70’s Dylan, capping it with a rousing “Harlem River” and joined by Cline. As he welcomed Nels to the stage, Morby joked that his partner Katie Crutchfield (aka Waxahatchee) got him a guitar lesson from Cline for a birthday gift so he was gonna sit back and take notes. For her part, Crutchfield delivered a solid but unremarkable set, Spencer Tweedy on drums and Eliana Athayde on bass and supporting vocals. The highlight for me was when she invited Morby out on stage to play a song from one of their favorite artists, the late Jason Molina.
Lucinda Williams is a revered name in the country-adjacent world, and though she’s lost the ability to play guitar after suffering a stroke a few years back, she and her band overcame early technical challenges to deliver a stirring set. Cate Le Bon first met Wilco via their invitation to the 2019 Solid Sound, and she got to know the band a whole better during her work as producer on Cousin, their latest record. Covered from head to toe in an attempt to quell the blazing afternoon sun from torching her pale Welsh skin, her set at the Beach Stage was minimal yet captivating, just a drummer and sax as company.
Cate Le Bon:
Father John Misty was a slightly polarizing selection to headline the third day. Anyone who name-checks themselves in a song not once but twice has to ooze supreme confidence, and Tillman certainly lacks none. Channeling the soft rock that dominated AM radio in the mid 70s, you need to dig under the veneer a few layers to uncover the narcissism, cynicism, and romanticism that courses through his work. “The Ideal Husband” hits all of those marks so deep but sadly was absent from tonight’s set.
As with Le Bon’s set, Mexico’s own Mint Field had the misfortune of playing the Beach Stage under circumstances that didn’t suit their strengths. Early afternoon under a blazing sky wasn’t the best match for a dark and moody post-punk trio, but they gamely braved the situation and hopefully had a better time of when they opened for Wilco a few days later in Mexico City. Conversely, The Autumn Defense was perfect for that sandy outlook at the edge of the lagoon. With the sun getting low on the horizon, Stirratt and Sansone’s country rock was perfectly suited. The band doesn’t seem to play much these days outside of Sky Blue Sky or Solid Sound, so it was a treat to hear their harmonies carry across the water. Tweedy (the band with Jeff and his sons Spencer and Sammy, along with James Elkington, Liam Kazar, with Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham from Finom) unsurprisingly drew the biggest crowd at that stage. “This is my side hustle” joked Tweedy as he took the stage and played selections from Warm and Love Is The King. Never one to miss a moment to get a laugh, he mentioned that he was in the ocean earlier and told Siri to tell his wife Susie to “get in the ocean” as it was really nice. But his phone texted Salman Rushdie instead. And that the directive felt more like a threat than an invitation. “You guys are missing my humble brag that I know Salman Rushdie’s phone number” he quipped. The set closed out with Sammy’s sweet vocals taking the lead on T Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer,” a song that’s surfaced on the family’s live Instagram streams.
The Autumn Defense:
After his authoring efforts for fifty one years consisted of a small book of poetry, Tweedy has been operating closer to a Stephen King level of output, with three books published in the last five years. His most recent one is more a collection of short essays on songs that helped shape his music, and he was joined by two experts to grill him. Those being his sons Spencer and Sammy, with their mom Susie in the audience to help guide the discussion as needed. We learned a rule in the Tweedy household is no farting at the dinner table or in Susie’s car, to which Jeff remarked “This is what you get for having the kids do this.” If you are familiar with the Tweedy Show (by the way, one of the bright spots from the pandemic), you know their family is freewheeling and funny, and tonight would be more of the same. I found Jeff’s story about pointing his stereo speakers down the stairs so his mom could listen to a song that meant a lot to him very endearing, (and yes – it’s a tremendous song, take a bow Peter Prescott) and the chat closed with Jeff playing some requests of people who felt a deep connection to a certain song he wrote. The last person talked about “Passenger Side,” a song where transgressions with the law ended up making long distance travel a lot harder. With a deadpan glance, Jeff said “I don’t really like that song so I’m not gonna play it. Bad choice” before breaking into a grin and playing it.
For people who had the energy for the 12:15 AM slot on the opening night, Bartees Strange made it worth their while. I caught him earlier this year at Newport Folk Festival but due to a mangled pinkie he was relegated to singing and occasional keyboards; tonight he would showcase just how much he can rip on guitar and his band was just as rabid. Big emotional swells and payoffs, leavened by a couple of slower and much different readings of covers of The National, Strange impressed a lot of people. I missed the late show by Makaya McCraven but the preceding set from Eucademix (aka Yuka Honda, partner of Nels’) was quite excellent. A mix of electronic rhythms, some noise and some techno against a brightly lit background, Honda delivered a captivating set that could have been lifted straight from a late night ’90s Berlin warehouse performance.
Closing down the fest was longtime indie rock guitar hero Doug Martsch and his revamped Built To Spill lineup. Pared down to just the necessities, this power trio comprising Melanie Radford on bass and Teresa Esguerra on drums (at least I think that was her; the amount of fog pumped out on that side of the stage was ridiculous) has given Doug and the Built To Spill material a shot of adrenaline. “Goin’ Against Your Mind” was a clear early peak and the energy never flagged. Martsch had previously played a solo set during the Positive Legacy auction a few hours prior but clearly had much more in the tank. Proper rock show send off!
Doug Martsch/Built To Spill:
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