Wilco and Andrew Bird at Summerfest

JULY 5, 2006

This was my first time at Milwaukee’s famous Summerfest. Seems like a nice festival, and they certainly book a lot more music than the typical summer fest. That means the festival invariably has some noteworthy acts, like this night’s double bill of Wilco and Andrew Bird, as well as a fair amount of shlock. How weird that Wilco was playing on one stage tonight, while Nickelback and Foreigner were playing elsewhere in the park.

And the band playing before Andrew Bird and Wilco was an incredibly annoying cover band called Sweet Tarts. Bad enough that I nearly ran from the venue with hands over my ears. Another band playing a short distance away, the Yonder Mountain String Band, would have been a much better fit with the Bird/Wilco lineup. These guys had a big audience dancing to their bluegrass picking, with a nice encore of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” (Now that “The Wall” has been covered in its entirety by Luther Wright & the Wrongs, is Pink Floyd becoming standard fodder for bluegrass bands? How odd.)

First, a note about the venue. While Summerfest is a fine place to hang out and get some beer and carnival food, it’s not exactly the smartest set up for watching a concert. The Miller Lite venue where Andrew Bird and Wilco were playing has long metal bleacher benches set up on the pavement in front of the stage, without any aisles – the only entrances being on either end of the long rows. That made it all but impossible to get close to the stage by the time I tried. And then everyone stood up on the benches as Bird started playing. I don’t know, but standing on a narrow metal bench isn’t my idea of how I want to spend a few hours during a concert, so I moved farther back. I found myself feeling a little misanthropic, an impulse I have to hold in check, as I was surrounded mostly by high school and college-age kids. Actually, it’s rather encouraging that young people are excited and interested in Wilco. I’ve heard a number of teens talk about Wilco as if it were some great musical secret they’d discovered. Still, when you’re standing in the middle of a bunch of teens, it starts to feel like being trapped at a prom, where the girls squeal and point at boys. Not my crowd, I guess…

I did eventually find some good vantage points, standing farther back and contenting myself to watch the concerts on the video screens.

Andrew Bird was as amazing as ever, creating some incredible pop symphonies with his looping pedals. He played a few new songs, which sounded pretty good on first listen – nothing seemed like a radical departure from the music on his last album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. I always wonder how well Bird’s precious music (and I mean precious in the best sense of the term) will go over with a big festival crowd, but this audience seemed to be appreciative – and I heard a few people shouting out requests for specific songs, so he obviously has a growing fan base.

Wilco put on a good show, not the best Wilco concert I’ve ever seen by a long shot, but probably the right sort of performance for a place like Summerfest. Jeff Tweedy was pretty talkative, trying to get the crowd to chant the names of various band members at different points of the night. And the band offered up a good sample of songs from its last two albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, plus a few oldies. Two new songs were played. One of the them sounded just OK to me as Tweedy was singing the first part, but when Nels Cline’s guitar solo came in, the song really picked up. Tweedy mentioned another new song called “Let’s Fight,” which the group was not ready to play in concert yet; he jokingly suggested that this Summerfest audience should reassemble at another time to sing that song’s chorus like a soccer chant. We’d all have to join the musicians union, though, he pointed out. “Misunderstood” sounded great – I counted 56 calls of “Nothing!” this time. I wonder how fans would react if Wilco played this song and just did a couple of “Nothings”?  In the final encore, “A Shot in the Arm” segued into the electronic notes of “Spiders (kidsmoke).” As usual, that song sounded fantastic, with the audience going wild whenever that descending chord progression kicks in.