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Wilco — 17 January 2022, Riviera Maya, Mexico (Hard Rock Hotel) [Sky Blue Sky Festival; Day 1 of 4]

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Well, Covid is certainly no laughing matter and leading into this week's second edition of the Sky Blue Sky Festival, I'm sure Wilco was desperately hoping not to have to come up with a punchline to the joke-like query of how many people does it take to replace a band member who tested positive and could not perform. But when keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen unfortunately did just that a few days ago, that's exactly what the headlining act had to figure out — and, no pun intended, pronto.


The answer, as it turned out was up to three people, namely the trio of Liam Kazar, his sister Sima Cunningham and her Ohmme bandmate Macie Stewart, who were dubbed "Young Jorgenstein" by Jeff during tonight's Wilco set when they alternated replacing Mikael behind his stage-right keyboard station. Mostly they tag-teamed in, with one replacing another after a few songs, but by the penultimate song of the main set, Spiders (Kidsmoke), all three of them were on stage together with the siblings each handling some keyboard duties while Stewart added violin. (Off the top of my head I don't recall, with this longstanding Wilco lineup, any band members having being absent for a show since Glenn missed a gig back in 2008 when the band was opening for Neil Young and Glenn had a previously scheduled commitment with the Kronos Quartet.)


Where would Wilco and/or Jeff be without the presence of this trio of extremely talented young musicians over the past few weeks? Sima already had to step into her brother Liam's shoes on extremely short notice as the bassist for the Tweedy solo band at Metro a few weeks ago when the latter had to quarantine and then Ohmme got added to the SBS lineup at the last minute when a few of the originally scheduled acts had to drop off the bill because of the Omicron surge. And now here were the three young musicians stepping in again to cover another Covid quandary, learning all of the songs on the setlist in an afternoon, according to Jeff.


"They're unbelievable," Jeff said of the trio early in Wilco's 1-hour, 48-minute set. "We'll introduce them later. Let's see how they play the rest of the show."


Of course, Wilco and its replacement keyboardists/synth mavens could have taken a much easier road in terms of what to play and no one would have blamed them. But instead they decided — as at the first SBS — to shake up their more conventional setlist with a healthy dose of rarities, rewarding those who were able to make the trek down to Mexico. (Presumably they will once again stick to their no-repeats policy over the three sets they play this week at the Hard Rock Hotel, though Jeff didn't promise as much.) At any rate, the fact the setlist was as wide-ranging as it was is a testament both to Wilco's unwillingness to phone it in and to the talent of "Young Jorgenstein." [Side note to Wilco management, who I'm sure do not read these recaps: T-shirts, please.]


From the outset, when the band took the stage and launched into Monday (on a Monday...no less!) with Sima on keys, you knew this was going to be a pretty interesting Wilco set at the very least. Jeff almost immediately suffered his first — and, as it turned out, perhaps his only — lyric flub of the evening when he missed the "he's waiting for a postcard" line. I'm not sure exactly how he botched it, but anyway, it was kind of funny. Next up was the rarely played (anymore) You Never Know, which the band apparently soundchecked during a short run-through earlier in the afternoon. Nels must not have had his white double-neck Jerry Jones guitar available, which is usually a giveaway on that song but it sounded great nevertheless, even without the true George Harrison treatment/tribute. And to close out a surprising opening trio of songs came the A.M. deep cut Shouldn't Be Ashamed, which I guess gets thrown into sets more than some other songs from that record but still isn't extremely common.


One song I was a little surprised to hear with Mike's absence was Laminated Cat (Not For The Season) because he adds a lot of synth textures to the current arrangement that can be hard to replace. Tonight, Macie stuck to her violin and didn't play keys on that song at all but it still sounded pretty excellent to these ears. You And I was also a song that I didn't necessarily expect to hear, but came out nicely with Sima adding backing vocals — not really singing it as a duet with Jeff, a la Feist, but still adding that female vocal — and Liam handling the keys. Spiders (Kidsmoke) and The Lonely 1 to close out the main set, of course, is always a welcome point-counterpoint.


I guess the other big question was just generally what the vibe would be like for the festival in general, and the Wilco shows in particular. For the Wilco set, I would say that it seemed pretty uncrowded in general, similar to last time. I guess all of the no-shows and cancellations really took a toll. People didn't seem to be wearing masks for the most part at the outdoor stage, though some were and the staff all were. From what I observed around me, people were generally into it, though the crowd seemed a bit older and surprisingly not as eager to let loose as I might have expected. (Although Jeff had to chide someone toward the front for being "an idiot" after there was apparently some kind of skirmish in the crowd, so maybe some folks were a little too eager to let loose.)


Generally, though, I think that's kind of the audience I've come to expect here. There are definitely more than a few hardcore fans, but also probably an equal (or maybe even greater) amount of folks who maybe are equally drawn to the opportunity to take an all-inclusive vacation in a nice resort and get out of the cold weather — or just get away — for a few days. It's hard to tell exactly who comes here and why, but it's a different crowd in some (many?) ways than, say, at the Solid Sound Festival. As far as the pandemic, I suppose we'll find out relatively soon how much or how little omicron will affect everyone here this week, but for one night at least, both the band and its assembled audience seemed to manage it more or less as well as each of them could.


Here was the complete setlist, as played, for Night 1 of Sky Blue Sky 2022 (looks like there were no omissions/changes from the printed setlist):


Monday (S)

You Never Know (S)

Shouldn't Be Ashamed (S)

Side With The Seeds (L)

She's A Jar (S)

Either Way (S, MV)

Company In My Back (M)

Cry All Day (M)

Via Chicago (M)

Laminated Cat (aka Not For The Season) (MV)

One And A Half Stars (M)

Whole Love (L)

Box Full Of Letters (L)

At My Window Sad And Lonely (L)

Someone To Lose (L)

You And I (SV, L)

Love Is Everywhere (Beware) (S)

War On War (S)

Everyone Hides (S)

Spiders (Kidsmoke) (S, L, MV)

The Lonely 1 (L, MV)


The Late Greats (L)

I'm A Wheel


S — denotes Sima Cunningham on keyboard

SV — denotes Sima Cunningham on backing vocals

L — denotes Liam Kazar on keyboard

M — denotes Macie Stewart on keyboard

MV — denotes Macie Stewart on violin

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On 1/20/2022 at 12:21 AM, tinnitus photography said:

Laminated Cat was pure energy, the highlight of the set for sure. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd took hold of human hosts (even if they aren't dead). 

Since it’s technically not a Wilco song, I don’t know if I can rank it in my top five Wilco songs. But I would if I could. And it’s been a highlight of the set since they started playing it more regularly the past couple of years.

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