Oh, the wind and the rain. Mostly just the rain. At least the imperfectly sunny weather today gave us a slight implication that we would be returning to shelter once more, but regardless, no one was too happy with Mother Nature for the second day in a row.
The day began on a fantastic note, as I caught what was easily one of the top three performances I would see all weekend. Jonathan Richman, a musical legend and hero of many, took the stage with frequent accompanying drummer Tommy Larkins to entertain us for a solid, nonstop hour of his nylon-string guitar stylings. I have rarely seen such comfort and love for the craft out of a performer. Richman is undeniably an inspiration. Each song granted a different moral, and the delivery system traveled naturally via Jonathan’s trademark comically lighthearted and smooth sense of pinpointing human behaviors for their truths while giving the crowd a hearty laugh every two minutes on the minute.
Sharon Van Etten took the main stage next, marking the second time I have seen her live; the first taking place last summer when she played before Dr. Dog at a free outdoor concert in Pittsburgh where she was hot off the release of Tramp as well. She noted that this was one of the only times she has played as a three-piece. I can remember that her band last summer featured at least four members in total, maybe a fifth including her. Still, none of her sound was lost in the subtraction of a musician. She retained everything as it sounds on Tramp, ripping through gorgeous melodies of “Serpents” and “Warsaw”, while even testing out a new song called “Tarifa”.
I have always been aware of Calexico, but until last week, I had never heard a lick of their tunes. For the past few years, it seems that they were just about the only breath of life left on Quarterstick Records, and their last two albums have been the site of much acclaim from media outlets. They are deeply rooted in and in touch with Latin influences; almost too much to be thought of as indie rock. Their playing was orchestrated, in a word. Featuring seven members, (I hope I counted correctly), we saw the likes of pedal steel guitar, dual trumpets, xylophone, nylon-string guitar, upright bass, maracas… they had it all! Ah, but the plight of having a million instruments results in a lengthy sound check. I stood in the photo pit for a very long time to witness the most enjoyable sound check I have ever seen. The band made light of the humorously tedious task of correcting the several band members’ monitors each time for each instrument on hand. Bassist Volker Zander was one of the last to get his vocal mic checked, and for the occasion, which had kept many waiting for so long, he sang an impromptu medley about which of his bandmates needed more of him in their monitor or not. By its brief ending, he was awarded applause. Once they finally performed, they did well on their part to offer several solo sections to each of their strengths where we were able to see the trumpets trade off melodies, Paul Niehaus’s “spy movie” guitar runs, and even an accordion solo. For my money, and mostly because of my unfamiliarity with their original songs, the best moments of the set were their covers of Joy Division‘s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Love‘s “Alone Again Or”; the latter was even more chilling because of their apt horn section.
Now here’s where yet another damper was put on everyone’s good time. Mavis Staples took the stage to skies that were filled with what looked like the Tesseract from A Wrinkle In Time. Her stage banter, while she managed to be allowed on stage, was pretty funny. She talked about how Jeff Tweedy produced some of her albums and anecdotes from within the studio would begin as, “Now, Tweedy…” Something about her constantly referring to Jeff not by his first name is just too cute. So, she sang her soulful heart out for a short handful of songs, including a good cover of The Band‘s “The Weight”, until finally it was clear to us all that rain was about to hit unrelentingly. And it did.
It was here, in the Hocking Valley College’s athletic center that some people took shelter. My friends and I sat in the gymnasium, where we eventually found no choice but to leave in order to avoid death, courtesy of a crazed looking man resembling comedian Jim Brewer whose athletic skills were not with him and was a danger to everyone sharing the room with him when he had a ball in his hand. His favorite thing to do was take a basketball full court and overhand-throw it at the hoop, which never came close to working, but he almost scored what would have been a three-pointer on my friend’s face. Oh, look, the rain is letting up… (please get us away from this man).
This rain was such a thorn in people’s plans, because indie rockers Wussy were to play the porch stage in between Staples’ and Wilco‘s sets. Heading over to the porch stage, I actually talked with their guitarist, Chuck Cleaver, to get the skinny. In an unfortunate mishap, the band had their equipment set up and ready to go prior to the storm, and all of the water on the stage’s awning had soaked through at once, drenching the stage, their amplifiers, their drum set, and their guitars. They did eventually play, but because of all the squeegeeing that needed to be done, they would now have to start at the same time Wilco did. Yesterday, I had to choose between Cat Power and Screaming Females. Now I had to choose between Wussy and Wilco. For me, this decision was not nearly as heartbreaking, but seriously- not cool, rain. Not. Cool.
Yet, whatever unhappiness was instilled in me by the rain was quickly lifted by Wilco. They have forever since getting in touch with my musical side been one of my favorite bands, so seeing them live was quite the spectacle. Their setlist could not be complained about. Tweedy and company are at a point in their career where they have so many classic numbers to choose from in constructing a setlist that they will never have the option of playing an imperfect concert. Six songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, “Handshake Drugs”, “Dawned On Me”, “Should’ve Been In Love”, and many others were played, rocking the audience’s world with each subsequent cut. The highlight, as with any Wilco performance anymore I can safely presume, was “Impossible Germany”. Any fan has seen video footage of this being played live, as it’s become their signature live song by now, thanks to a transcendental guitar solo/odyssey from Nels Cline. I can safely say that I have only felt so elated a select number of times before. Thank you for bringing that feeling back, Nels. For their encore, four members from Calexico came back out to offer horns and trumpets to “California Stars” while just two trumpets remained for the closing “I’m The Man Who Loves You”. Perfecto.
Alright. Once more, a thousand thanks to Mona and Brid from Tell All Your Friends PR. This has been a privileged weekend, and there’s one day left! Stay tuned for the conclusion of Nelsonville Music Festival. Peace.