Wilco | photo by Jeremy Zimmerman for WXPN
XPN Fest Recap: Wilco jams, Conor Oberst rages and Hop Along smokes to wrap XPNFest day one
There was a lot of pent-up energy in the air last night as the XPNFest crowd settled in for the headlining BB&T Pavilion show. Was it going to rain or no? Would all the shifting around of sets and times throw a wrench in the festival works? Was that ominous flock of Canada geese going to go at it with the crowd on the lawn?
The answers: no, no and no. The show was kicked off by an explosive 30 minute set from Hop Along, sauntered through a powerful mix of Bright Eyes and solo tunes from Conor Oberst and was capped by a 95-minute jammer by Wilco — shorter than their usual fare, but nevertheless satisfying.
Frontwoman Frances Quinlan opened the night with a meditative solo performance of “Happy To See Me,” a stunning reflection on memory, mortality and happiness from 2015’s remarkable Painted Shut LP. As she closed on the repeated phrase “We all will remember things the same,” her bandmates walked on stage — brother Mark Quinlan on drums, Tyler Long on bass and Joe Reinhart on guitar — and they launched into “The Knock.” The band has been on a week and a half tour with Oberst, about which Quinlan gushed momentarily, saying how she’d been listening to Oberst’s music since she was much younger, so the bill was a dream. Coming off of that run of dates, the bandmates were tight and totally smoked their half-hour, six song set, which included an as-yet untitled new one with shimmering guitar work from Reinhart and bold, even jazzy vocals from Quinlan, a new realm for her awesomely singular voice.
“You don’t want to know what I had to go through to get here today,” Oberst said upon taking the stage. At first it seemed like he was maybe being a bit facetious — his stage persona circa 2017 seems to feature tongue-in-cheek, self-depricating digs at the sad-boy songwriter he was seen as in the early days of his career — but it seems like Oberst actually did have a journey, getting stuck in traffic outside New York’s Holland Tunnel, then jumping out of his car (presumably somebody else was driving!) to grab a subway and then helicopter to south Jersey. It was a ridiculous tale, though Oberst insisted it was actually what happened. In any case, his set ran the gamut from the mellow and meditative “Barbary Coast (Later)” — highlighted by fiddle playing and tight drums by his backing band, featuring members of The Felice Brothers — to railroad ragers like “Napalm” and hits from the Bright Eyes canon like “Four Winds.”
Oberst has always been questioning and critical of those who misuse and abuse power — this is the guy who wrote “When The President Talks To God” we’re talking about — and he took a moment mid-set to totally unload on our current administration, the “charlatan in office” with a laundry list of offenses the man at the mic laid out in rapid succession. “This is great that we’re at a rock show and all, it’s fun, but this is the world we’re living in, and I don’t want to live in a world like this.” He got a mix of cheering standing ovation and some folks up front booing and throwing things at stage, but Oberst nonetheless raged into a show-stealing take on “Roosevelt Room” from Other South, his 2009 album with the Mystic Valley Band. As our Tyler Asay wrote on Twitter, that is how you do a political rant at XPNFest.
Wrapping the night was Jeff Tweedy and his band of merrymakers in Wilco, who were light on conversation, heavy on the music. Opening with Star Wars’ skittish rockers “Random Name Generator” and “The Joke Explained,” they moved into the shimmering psychedelia of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the hammering electronic rock “Art of Almost” from The Whole Love. Twenty minutes in and we’d already hit on three distinct styles that Wilco has mastered over the past two decades, but they were just getting started.
A pair of songs from Schmilco led into classics “Via Chicago” from Summerteeth and an electrifying “Bull Black Nova” from Wilco (The Album). The centerpiece of every Wilco set, “Impossible Germany,” swirled and shimmered around Nels Cline’s dazzling guitar solo that brings the song to its apex, quickly followed by a twenty-two year trip back to A.M.‘s “Box Full of Letters,” which Tweedy said was the first song WXPN ever played of theirs. “That’s a rare thing,” he said of radio support, and the band tore into a hit parade to close the night — the ever-joyful “I’m Always In Love,” the toe-tapping “Hummingbird” and a thrilling, nearly ten-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” from A Ghost Is Born that brought the main set to a conclusion with the crowd clapping and singing the guitar lead.
With a quick encore of “Outtasite (Out of Mind)” from their 1996 masterwork Being There giving the show one last kick, fans were sent beaming out into the night. Yeah, Wilco didn’t play their normal two-plus hours, but it didn’t feel like they left us shortchanged either. Check out photos from the night and the setlists in the gallery below.
Random Name Generator
The Joke Explained
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Art of Almost
If I Ever Was a Child
Someone to Lose
War on War
Bull Black Nova
Box Full of Letters
I’m Always in Love
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
Conor Oberst Setlist
Barbary Coast (Later)
Too Late to Fixate
Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out
Train Under Water
Lua (Duet with Phoebe Bridgers)
Hop Along Setlist
Happy To See Me
Tibetan Pop Stars