Live Review: Wilco and Sleater-Kinney at Brown’s Island, Wednesday, Aug. 19

It may have been the biggest concert of the summer in Richmond and fans would brave what felt like one of the most humid nights of the year for it. Man, was it hot for awhile there.

Having moved from its original location at Altria Theater, a major tour featuring alt. rock favorites Wilco and Sleater-Kinney, as well as the experimental Chicago artist NNAMDI, rolled into Brown’s Island on Wednesday, Aug. 18. While it felt safer being outside, it had just rained in Richmond for days and the ground was wet while the hot and humid air was best jokingly described by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy as “moist.” Many attendees looked like they had just entered a wet t-shirt contest. All of the bands that played seemed stunned by the heat, making a point of noting just how miserable it felt outside, as if they were amazed Richmonders could live with such humidity. But as the energetic Sleater-Kinney also noted during its opening set, it was hard to complain when it felt great just to be “playing shows again” – that celebratory mood, and plenty of $2 bottles of water bought via cellphone app (as were any drinks this evening), carried people through the extreme mugginess that evening.

Due to work running a bit late, we missed NNAMDI’s early set, showing up just in time to catch Sleater-Kinney blaze through a fast-paced set of mostly newer songs plus a few chestnuts. One of the original riot grrrl bands of the 1990s, Sleater-Kinney is still characterized by the almost telepathic interplay between singer-guitarist Corin Tucker and energetic lead guitarist Carrie Brownstein (also of “Portlandia” fame) whose high kicks, Pete Townsend-esque jumps, dance moves and rock star postures put most guy rockers to shame. They ripped through a set that included songs from their latest album, Path of Wellness, as well more recent albums No Cities to Love and The Center Won’t Hold– with earlier tunes like “Jumpers” riling the crowd. The band’s latest album was the first without original drummer Janet Weiss and this touring band featured Galen Clark on keys, Fabi Reyna on guitar, Bill Athens on bass and Vincent Lirocchi on drums. Some of the original trio’s punk (“Dig Me Out”) rawness seemed missing but it’s hard to fault a band for evolving into a more diverse, full-band sound over the years and for always challenging themselves to sound different with each album. Still, it was a heavily rocking set and the band’s DIY origins showed through, like when Brownstein took the mic to check on a fan who had to be removed by paramedics due to heat exhaustion (“Drink water out there, it’s hot” she pleaded with the crowd, “watch out for the person next to you.”)

Headliner Wilco came onstage just as the sun was starting to go down and the merciless heat began to fade. The band, known as much for its mellow Americana roots as its melodic rock experimentation in the studio, kicked things off with a nod to the pandemic with “A Shot in the Arm” from 1999’s Summerteeth album and the upbeat, funky rocker “Random Name Generator” from 2015’s Star Wars. Immediately you got a sense of the famous Wilco dynamic: The wildly chaotic guitarwork of Nels Cline mixed with the stylistically colorful drumming of Glenn Kotche and led by the veteran frontman presence of Jeff Tweedy and his winsome, weathered vocals. Together, they led this well-oiled machine through a set that seemed to steadily alternate between more rocking numbers that deconstructed themselves amidst strobe light effects, and pretty mellow, mid-tempo songs that allowed Tweedy’s personal songwriting to shine through. During one of the slower tunes, “If I Ever Was a Child,” a train rolled along nearby tracks above the James River and Tweedy admitted afterward that it made him “cry a little,” adding that he wished the sounds of the train’s brakes had been on the original recording. However, over the next couple songs, more train cars rolled to a screeching stop, one even blew its horn, and Tweedy quickly got over his romantic reverie: “Ok, train, you’ve had your moment,” he joked.

Other highlights from the set included usual favorites from the band’s breakthrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” “Jesus, Etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” are now like greatest hits for the band, which also showed love to early fans with the rocking “Box Full of Letters” from 1995’s A.M. Things ended on an upbeat note with a high-energy encore featuring the stomping rocker “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” – which included a crowd sing-a-long — and the lovely, poetic closer “California Stars,” famously written by Woody Guthrie and recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco for the classic Mermaid Avenue album.

As far as pandemic concerns, vaccination cards were required and lines at various entry points moved quickly. Inside, many audience members crowded together down front seemed not to be worried about standing too close, while others milled about the exterior, keeping a safe distance. Overall it was a solid night of music, with a few less people than normal, that was pulled off well by organizers considering all the impediments; many folks had asked for refunds because they preferred a seated indoor show, not a more general admission setting. But a big shout-out should go to whoever was responsible for the sound at Brown’s Island: It was dialed in and sounded great from practically anywhere on the field. Well-done, friendo.

A side note: This will be the last show at Brown’s Island for awhile, according to a local promoter at the show, due to some upcoming construction being completed for the Richmond Folk Festival, which happens in early October. There could be more live shows or events at the venue picking up in December and beyond, weather permitting, the promoter said.


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