It was perhaps fitting that, at the stroke of midnight, in the middle of Atmosphere’s late-night set, the skies opened up, lightning ripped across the sky, fat sheets of rain began to fall, and another day at the 10,000 Lakes Music Festival came to an abrupt, soggy conclusion. Atmosphere’s hip-hop superstar Slug was apologetic (for not having more god-like powers, I presume), but urged everyone to make the best of it and “go make some babies.”
Until then, the weather had been spectacularly cooperative—sunny, in the high 70s, with a slight breeze. The afternoon loped by with sets from bluegrass heavyweights Railroad Earth and Garaj Mahal, a jazz-funk-fusion band that is less a band that it is a sonic experiment in quantum theory. Evidently, these guys have received grant money to find out how many notes and beats can be squeezed into a finite moment in time. Their hope, I gather from listening, is to rip a hole in the space/time continuum, thereby allowing them to play even more notes at something closer to the speed of light.
After that, on the mainstage, a set by local favorites The Honeydogs sounded like catsup coming out of a bottle—slow and thick, but tasty in its unastonishing way. The main act of the night was Wilco, but before Jeff Tweedy and company came on, another local, Mason Jennings, wooed the crowd with, among other things, several songs from his upcoming album—due in September—called Blood of Man .
We in the Twin Cities have a soft spot for singer/songwriters who pick up Bob Dylan’s torch and carry it with a pure heart, a decent band, and a better voice. Jennings is one of the best ones, because he can also flip a switch, ditch the Martin, and rock respectably hard. Judging from the few songs he played from the new CD—most being played live for the first time—the album is going to have a bit of both.
One song from the new album, called “Sunlight,” is a romantic paean to summer that uses an achingly familiar AABB rhyme scheme—“Sunlight on a freckled face, everything is in its place . . . I want to bring you flowers, I want to build you the Eiffel Tower.”
You get the idea. One suggestion for you lyric writers: If it’s possible to guess with greater than 50 percent accuracy what the next rhyming word is going to be—face>place, blue>you, please>squeeze, be>me etc.>it may be worth putting in an extra five or ten minutes into writing that verse. To give Mason due credit, one of the new songs, which he didn’t name, is probably the best song he’s ever written—a groovy, swamp-rocking thing that takes the verse “You ain’t no friend of mine” and repeats it until you’re quite convinced—these two are no longer friends. Also the title track, “Blood of Man,” begins with a leisurely Gene Autry-style vamp and ends on a Hendrix-like jam, seemingly spanning about sixty years of music history in four minutes. Pretty impressive.
I wish I could say the same about Wilco—but how one perceives the Wilco concert experience depends, I suspect, on how much you like Wilco. For me, Wilco is one of those bands that I’ve heard on the radio, liked their songs okay, but never developed an affinity for. The reason is simple: For some reason, lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s voice is pitched at a weird register that I happen to find annoying. It’s not his fault—just like it wasn’t Mary Hart’s fault when those people started having seizures when they heard her voice—but it impedes my ability to enjoy Wilco’s songs.
That said, Wilco is a tight, muscular band that’s playing some aggressively progressive rock at the moment—though reasonable minds can disagree on what the word "progressive" really means when applied to indie-rock bands. The 10,000 Lakes gig was the last of Wilco's American summer concerts before heading across the pond for a three-month European tour. Jeff Tweedy was clearly having a lot of fun, and at one point admonished the crowd for throwing so many glow sticks; then, like a school teacher, he requested that all the glow sticks be thrown onstage, whereupon he was showered with thousands of tubes glowing red, blue, and green. “It seems I may have underestimated how many glow sticks you guys have,” he quipped. “It looks like we’re going to have to come to some sort of arrangement.”
The band opened with the first song off its new CD—Wilco’s song about itself—and played several others from that disc, which—to put it kindly—isn’t their best material. Still, in concert, Tweedy and company make a strong case for themselves as a powerful stage force; they are extremely focused and disciplined on the verse/singing aspect of their playing, but for my tastes their jams tend to dissolve into dissonance and distortion, with lead guitarist Nels Cline tremeloing so fast that it looks like he’s trying to scrape a particularly stubborn stain off his guitar. As the guy sitting next to me said, “The world may be falling apart, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their jams have to.” Cline is easily one of the top ten rock guitarists playing today—his speed is frightening, and his penchant for strange effects and phrasing complements Tweedy’s iconoclastic soloing style—and in concert he is full of energy, hopping between four or five different guitars, including a lap-steel.
After an hour and forty-five minutes of playing, Tweedy and company closed it out with a wicked, persuasive attack on “Hoodoo Voodoo,” then waved goodbye and that was it. No encore for the faithful—just a promise that they’ll be back in October. Specifically, they'll be playing at Roy Wilkins Auditorium Oct. 2—a boomy room that, unless they dial it back a little, I'm guessing is going to turn those dissonant jams into white noise.
Tonight, there’s another show from Wednesday’s headliners Widespread Panic, but before that there’s a lot of music to get through, including sets from Tim Sparks, Cloud Cult, Tea Leaf Green, and several other acts. Collectively, I just hope they’re all powerful enough to keep the rain at bay.
Strangest sights today: Two women dressed up as Playboy bunnies—or sexy rabbits, at any rate. Three guys dressed in togas. A black man wearing a black t-shirt that read “Black Dude.”