WonderBus Music And Arts Festival (Day 2): Columbus, OH – Sunday, August 29, 2021
Despite a forecast that threatened rainstorms, the second day of the WonderBus music festival in Columbus on the lawn of the Chemical Abstracts Service came off without a hitch, with the two final bands of the evening delayed only a half hour while dark clouds and a few sprinkles passed by, putting just enough moisture into the air to produce a lovely rainbow to the east. On the night prior, Kesha headlined with AJR and The Band Camino being the main draw, along with food trucks, blow-up bouncy houses for the kids, and an alternative shopping village. But for this aging rocker, the main attraction was Sunday night’s headliner, Wilco, the day after they had completed their co-headline tour with Sleater-Kinney in Chicago.
Scheduled to start at 9, the six-person Wilco took to the stage a mere 15 minutes after the hour and, as long-time fans who’ve been following the tour via Facebook fan groups—where nightly setlists were posted—were anticipating, launched into the song that has opened every night of the tour, “A Shot In the Arm.” Fans were poised to turn the song into a singalong from the moment a smiling Jeff Tweedy leaned in toward his mic to sing the first line, “The ash tray says/You were up all night,” right on through the oft repeated title line, “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm.” I have to ask, is there a more appropriate song to play to a crowd in a pandemic, where proof of vaccinations were required if you wanted to go without a mask? “Random Name Generator,” a crunchy rocker came next, Tweedy playing a guitar solo, before turning the duties over to Nils Cline. Similarly, on “Side With The Seeds,” a song from the “Sky Blue Sky” album that starts of slow and a little bluesy with the piano, but has a fun guitar break where again Tweedy played the guitar lead.
Tweedy moved to acoustic guitar for “Via Chicago,” a song that has become a show staple because of the unique way they deliver it live, with a couple of huge, long bursts of chaotic noise that takes it’s cue from drummer Glenn Kotche, while Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt continue to play the underlying folky song as if nothing unusual was happening around them, while the other four were going nuts. The song is always a hoot to watch, but Sunday evening it was a step above the half a dozen or more times I’ve seen the band play it. First that folky song that they begin playing felt more melodic and lovely, especially when the last burst of noise dissipated and the band all joined in to play the chorus through to completion, but secondly Kotche’s attack on the drums when the noise came in was intense and aggressive and that seemed to bring the level of intensity higher from Cline and the others, although I went in anticipating where they’d take it like years’ past, it felt altogether more urgent and raw.
And that was a sustained feeling as Wilco played through a set that was quite familiar on the face of it, both because they’ve followed a pretty consistent setlist on this year’s return-to-live-shows tour, but in their desire to reconnect with their fans after this long delay, it felt like all the players individually and the band as a whole was bringing it up to a new level. That certainly felt the case on “Art of Almost,” where Cline’s guitar solo delivered on all the expectation that came to Wilco when the experimental player known most for playing an extreme and often noisy freeform jazz add his unique approach to the songwriting craft of Tweedy in 2004, His solos on this night were artful and added real excitement and energy to the band’s work together.
Another thing, noticeable in the setlist, beyond the clear desire to play something from each of the albums, but also to exhibit the band’s breadth when it comes to musical styles, from the quieter, folk things to the loudest rockers, no stone was left unturned. And the folky “If I Ever Was a Child,” from the band’s 2016 album, “Schmilco,” was a case in point, delivered in a way that accented the song’s poppy melody, with Stirratt, the one other original member of the band alongside Tweedy, joining in on harmony vocal. “Impossible Germany” was up next, a song much loved for the double and triple guitar solo leads when Tweedy and third guitarist Pat Sansone join in and play a long elegant melodic in harmony, but like early the band seemed to want to take this song far beyond previous expectations. Cline started out the traditional solo section and Tweedy led the band into a steady repeat of the rhythmic groove while the jazzy, experimental player that Cline is seemed to want to play every riff that he could think of running his fingers speedily up the neck of his guitar, each run taking the intensity up a notch, so that when he finally nodded that he was moving to that more familiar riff for the trio it brought a roar of appreciation from the crowd. Next level playing, period.
And again, moving in an altogether different direction, Tweedy handed off his guitar as pianist Mikael Jorgensen played the light bouncy pop opening of “Hummingbird,” another song that fans have traditionally turned into a sing-along and Sunday night was no exception, as the band played out the bouncy Beatlesque rhythm a smiling Tweedy began a happily jogging in place, and clapping along. That amiable approachability, which Wilco fans have grown more than comfortable with since the singer/songwriter and his family started doing the “The Tweedy Show” live on Instagram, where they sang some of his songs and an array of covers, has removed any semblance of rock star attitude from the singer that I once saw hit a silly crowd surfer who had managed to climb on stage and made the mistake of trying to put his arm around his shoulder in Springfield, MO. Once the kids have seen Dad in his comfy lounge jammies singing harmonies with his lovely wife, it’s going to be hard to get them to take you seriously when you tell them to get off your lawn.
But, as gracious as Dad can be, you shout a song request at the top of your lungs and he might throw you some shade, as he did when one crowd member yelled something loud yet incomprehensible. “You haven’t been out in a while, have you,” Tweedy said, “We’ve come to expect this kind of aberrant behavior as some who have been in lock down try to ease back into society.” Later when another fan yelled, out a request, Tweedy pointed to his setlist on the floor, saying, “Well, we’ve prepared a program specifically for tonight.” Then ever eager to please, he returned to the mic to add, “and we hope you enjoy it.” It’s always fun when you get snark just as your preparing to deliver a folk-rock song from your latest album, “Ode to Joy,” titled “Love Is Everywhere (Beware).” Which was followed by the more keyboard oriented folk pop of “You Are My Face,” with more vocal harmonies from Stirratt and Sansone. Tweedy then announced they were going to do something from Wilco’s very first album, and when a fan down front screamed, Tweedy asked if they knew the name of the album, which they guessed wrong. The band played “Box Full of Letters,” from “A.M.” all the way back in ’95, a country rock leaning song, where Sansone played the guitar solo on a Telecaster for just the right amount of twang, before returning with the poppiest song from their newest album, “Everybody Hides,” which came across with more of a Beach Boys feel than I remembered from the album.
Cline brought out a double necked guitar for “Dawned on Me,” and then the band settled into a solid string of songs they’ve pretty much been playing at the end of their set for the last weeks. A tender, reading of the ballad “Jesus, Etc.,” everybody noticeably singing along with the line “singing sad, sad songs,” which may have involved some event that I missed that involved the beach balls that had been flying around occasionally since earlier in the day. Tweedy commented about how a nicely hit volley of the beach ball on the hands and heads of the crowd tended to contribute nicely to the playing of the band. But when one was hit poorly off to the side, he suggested that if we can’t pass around the beach ball, “We could always sing a nice midtempo song to each other,” before motioning to Jorgensen to play the piano intro to “Theologians,” which we then sang to each other.
Then kicking things up a notch, Tweedy hit the throbbing opening feedback note that opens “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” which brought on a high level of guitar noise and frivolity. Then to lead into the much-anticipated pop rocker, “Heavy Metal Drummer,” Tweedy did a funny beat-poet like reading of the lyrics, and how the desired love interest continues to fall for “another, and another,” before they kicked the song into high gear. Tweedy added a line about the drummer spinning their sticks, and Kotche did just that right on key, while we all remembered the golden innocence of our youth, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Then they closed out the set proper with “I’m Always in Love,” from the album where we started out the evening, “Summerteeth,” which put us right at 10:45 when the set was supposed to be over.
Tweedy announced that they’d been given permission to play a bit longer and suggested that if we skipped that whole encore charade where they go stand off stage and wait five minutes to return, they could play an extra song. Which they did, diving into “The Late Greats,” celebrating artists who were much beloved but you couldn’t hear them on the radio. And then closed out the evening with the sterling rocker from the band’s second album, “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” the band given a final rock out farewell, with Sansone doing his Pete Townshend windmills, and the rest of the band from Kotche on the drum kit and Cline and Tweedy grinding out the punchy rock & roll full attitude, piss and vinegar. A great end to a fun, hot night, alright.
Grouplove was the other band whose set was delayed in anticipation of rain, but the expanded group added extra drums, punky guitars and a major amount of attitude to as they give the crowd a “Welcome to Your Life,” from their 2016 release, “Big Mess.” They added a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” to music culled from their collection of albums, leaning toward punk at the front end, and techno as the set progressed. Vocalist Hannah Hooper announced that it had been over 500 days since their last show, and while some of their vocal harmonies stretched the boundaries a bit, they made up with energy and spirit what they lacked in precision.
Black Pumas, sailing in on the strength of their #1 single “Colors,” from their Grammy nominated self-titled debut album, was all about the harmony, with lead vocalist Eric Burton backed up soulfully by Angela Miller and Lauren Cervantes. With his songwriting partner Adrian Quesada on guitar, Burton, worked the crowd backed by the solid rhythm section of Stephen Bidwell on drums and Brendan on bass, with JaRon Marshall bringing strong sounds from his Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ and other keys. Pop soul favorites like “Know You Better” and “Next to You,” provided a great introduction to the band’s vibe, while Burton’s carrying his wireless mic into the crowed added to the connection the band made with their audience. And they really worked that familiar hook from “Colors” by giving it all the extra attention it deserved, including a reprise. The only thing missing from the sound on their album was a solid horn section to flesh out that soul revue feel, which was all the more noticeable because they followed the Broken Bones horn section by just an hour.
The surprise for many who didn’t seem that familiar with their music, was the set by St. Paul & The Broken Bones, the 8-piece R&B and funk rooted band fronted by soul singing vocalist Paul Janaway. They dominated with an airtight groove locked down by drummer Kevin Leon and bassist Jesse Phillips, accessorized by the keyboards of Al Gamble, Browan Lollar on guitar, and the horns of Allen Branstetter on trumpet, Amari Ansari on sax, and Chad Fisher on trombone. They came on strong from the start with “Don’t Mean a Thing,” but took it up a notch midset with “Sanctify” and then brought it home at the climax with “Flow with It (You Got Me Feeling Like),” “Apollo,” and their big breakout song, “Call Me.” There’re few words to describe Janaway, his high soaring voice, his quirky delivery style, and his willingness to go all out to deliver the emotions at the heart of his songs, even if that means rolling around on the stage until one of his shoes comes off. So crazy and unusual, but it works… and the band’s music breaks through with a big full, impeccable sound. They closed with their traditional namesake piece, the quieter “Broken Bones & Pocket Change.” In all the combination of talents, great music, and fun setting made WonderBus a great way to spend a hot sunny day near the end of August. And did I mention the rainbow?
-Review by Brian Q. Newcomb