Wilco, Blue Loon, Fairbanks, AK- 7/25
When Wilco released Sky Blue Sky last year, the prevailing music critic comments (and those of many fans) were that the band was mellowing and opting for a gentler sound. Front man Jeff Tweedy was no longer addicted to the pain killers that drove his aching love songs and insightful, if dark, social commentary; the time off while Tweedy cleaned up gave the band a well needed rest; they had reached the pinnacle of musical success, having won two Grammy Awards for A Ghost is Born; and the seemingly ever-revolving lineup was now stable and clicking on all cylinders. In other words, the edge that drove Wilco’s music to such emotionally plundering heights was gone, washed down the pot like Tweedy’s little pills.
But those who thought that didn’t dig deep enough, listen closely enough. In fact, Wilco’s sound became more solidified, cohesive and telepathic, and as a result more adept at slipping subtletiesbe it a guitar line or piano trillinto their songs. Tweedy still bares his anguished soul on Sky Blue Sky as whispers become screams, and if anything, Wilco became louder in a quiet way, making a stronger, more beautifully pronounced musical statement as a result.
Then there are the live shows. Wilco makes no bones about what they area bunch of mid-west guys that struggle through the same realities of life and love like everyone else, but with the ability to turn up the charm, irony or pain through music many find a home in. All that was clearly evident by the response of the amped up audience July 25 at the Blue Loon in Fairbanks, Alaska. While nationally touring bands occasionally find their way up north, few of Wilco’s caliber venture this far, so that may be part of the crowd buzz, but anticipation was high as the band hit the stage at 8:21 p.m. with approximately half the audience still wearing sunglasses against the bright daylight. This is Alaska, and sunset wouldn’t come until well after midnight, though it would never actually get fully dark.
Acknowledging this, the band opened with “Either Way,” and the line “Maybe the sun will shine today,” elicited a round of cheers. In all, five tracks from Sky were performed.
“This is our first show outside the 48 states. This is our 47th state. We have a 50 state agenda,” Tweedy announced a few songs into the set, before adding, “We’re a little disconcerted by all the daylight.”
True, Wilco is probably more accustomed to playing in dark clubs or at night (in a “normal” place, anyway) and the stage lights did little except create some cool effects on Nels Cline’s guitars, particularly his black Fender Jaguar, but this didn’t really slow the band down. Everyone appeared loose and relaxedhaving earlier gone hiking or visited the Museum of the Northas they blazed a tight and varied path across their musical landscape, stopping at most of their albums for tracks like “Summerteeth,” “Handshake Drugs,” “Pot Kettle Black,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” among others. Rounding it all out was show closer “Hoodoo Voodoo” from Mermaid Avenue.
Two new songs slipped in, including “One Wing,” played live for the first time. Clearly, the mid-tempo rocker is still evolving as there were a couple tentative moments, but it’s easy to see where it may end up, and the final rocking send up was as solid and perfectly Wilco as anything else on the bill this evening. “Sunny Feeling” had just that, a bouncy, playful, and slightly twangy upbeat vibe with Cline doing some brilliant slide work on his vintage Rickenbacher with Tweedy strumming a 12-string F-hole Telecaster.
The show cruised through a little rain burst that failed to dampen anyone’s spirits and the ten song double encore equaled two-thirds the main set in length.
“We’re gonna play until it gets dark,” Tweedy quipped just before opening the second encore with “Heavy Metal Drummer.” “We have enough songs.”
With sunset still several hours off, it’s unlikely anyone would have complainedor left. As it was, Wilco’s two-plus hour show was more than appreciated here in the land of the midnight sun.