There’s smoke pouring off barbeques all along West Grand Blvd., rising up against Detroit’s aging skyscrapers in a vaguely post-apocalyptic, “Blade Runner” sort-of way. An inadvertently creepy reminder of ’67 to stupid suburbanite eyes.
But the streets are full of life once more as a steady stream of people crowd past the food venders from all over Metro Detroit on Wednesday evening. It’s the first night of Tastefest, D-town’s annual Fourth of July weekend of food and free-music festival. Most folks seem content to fill their faces and people watch, yet by 7 p.m., there’s a select group of fans already drifting away from the smells of ribs and sweet corn.
They head for the Fisher’s parking lot where the main stage sits empty, waiting for opening night’s headliners, Chicago’s heroes of all-things-alt, Wilco. It feels like a bit of a coup for the festival’s promoters to have landed the critically-lauded band just before they start a string of opening dates for R.E.M.’s latest tour.
In fact whoever pieced together the list of performers for Tastefest chose their acts surprisingly well; college staples Rusted Root and Guster, Latin rock kings Los Lobos and ’70s organ journeyman Billy Preston all performed over the holiday weekend, as well as local favorites the Waxwings, the Dirtbombs and Carl Craig.
It’s still sunny and steamy an hour later when the men of Wilco hit the stage, in what must be a rock ‘n’ roll first, precisely at 8 p.m. Those who’ve been waiting right up front feel a small twinge of vindication for being so close. A hefty crowd has fallen in behind them for the free show. A small segment of smart fans have taken refuge in a nearby parking garage which allows for a completely shaded, overhead view of the stage.
While, it’s still too light out for the stage’s video screen to be visible, the first half of Wilco’s set doesn’t stray far from last year’s acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with a few older favorites and new treats like the unreleased “Muzzle of Bees” thrown in for good measure.
Guitarist/singer Jeff Tweedy is plagued by sound problems early, but he takes it in stride. He grimaces when his mic keeps crapping out during the chorus of “I’m Always in Love,” but the frontman tells the crowd as the roadies scramble to put on new cable that it “sounded kinda cool.”
It’s this breezy attitude that seemed to define the whole of this night’s performance. The fellas are comfortable, loose and casually confident after well over a year of touring behind YHF. Neo-psychedelic jams and mini-noise-rock freak-outs do little to endear Tweedy and Co. to the outdoor festival audience, most of whom unfortunately aren’t familiar enough with the band to let experimental feedback hold their attention for too long.
The band doesn’t seem to mind losing a few people here and there, pulling out ballads like YHF’s tender closer “Reservations” even as middle-aged guys in Hawaiian shirts start striking up loud conversations or heading for the beer tent. Wilco didn’t seem to mind a bit, playing not so much to the cross-section of devoted indie kids spread throughout the crowd but more for themselves.
But Tweedy still knows when it was time to pull out fist-pumping pop sing-alongs like “Heavy Metal Drummer” and Being There’s “Monday” to hook everybody back in.
Surprisingly Wilco stayed onstage for the better part of two hours (most of Tastefest’s performers were held to abbreviated time slots). More than once it seemed like the show was over, as the parking lots’ lights are slowly but systematically shut off during the first encore, and after almost every song, another few people started heading for their cars.
But even as the lights fade, Wilco seemed to be still in their own world, diving deeper into their back catalogue for old gems like the now appropriate “California Stars” and the epic “Misunderstood,” when Tweedy does his customary studder of “I wanna thank ya / For nothing / For nothing / Nothing at all.”