Photo by Joshua Frances

Wilco, Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, Chicago, IL- 8/21

On a cool Sunday summer evening that typically would have brought a pre-Monday calm to Chicago’s Millennium Park, the air was full of anticipation of Wilco’s first hometown show in just over a year. Among a deep sea of blankets, picnic dinners and an eclectic collection of Wilco t-shirts dating back to the 1990s, Jeff Tweedy and his band started in on an impressive 31-song showcase of where the band has been and where it’s going.

After a quick but powerful garage rock set from fellow Chicago natives Twin Peaks, Wilco took the stage just as the summer sun began to set. Although it was apparent that the night’s performance would be at least somewhat dedicated to debuting songs from the band’s imminent 2016 album, Schmilco, the group began by playing straight through several tunes from 2015’s Star Wars. “More…” filled the densely-packed park with dreamy, Beatles-esque melancholy while “Random Name Generator” combined Glenn Kotche’s punching drumming with an eerie but upbeat Tweedy-led melody.

Just when fans thought the band might play straight through the 2015 album, the group slowed it down and brought it back to 2002 with an otherworldly, dissonant “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Mikael Jorgensen and his keyboard kept the extraterrestrial vibes alive with “Art of Almost” just before a rocking “Pickled Ginger.”

As the sky started to fade from light gray to dark blue, Tweedy finally spoke out from under his wide brim hat. “We’re home! We’ve been all over, but it’s good to see you again. It’s been a while,” he said. Perhaps to show just how happy he was, Tweedy and his band sprung into a “Handshake Drugs” that softly highlighted the talents from every corner of the group. After nearly finishing out Star Wars, the stage darkened, the spotlight landed on Tweedy and the group started in on a jarring “Via Chicago.” As if to make sure the crowd wasn’t nodding off, the band broke up the soft, slow song with several violent bursts of light and sound reminiscent of an attack scene in an old horror movies.

In the midst of a rocking “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” Tweedy spoke out. “I know it’s Sunday night, and I know clapping along at a rock concert is stupid, but it would feel so good if we got 100 percent participation. Has any band ever asked you so nicely?” he laughed. “You don’t want Minnesota to do this better than you, do you?” he teased before getting his hometown to fill the impressive Jay Pritzker Pavilion with thunderous claps.

“You did so good, I’m going to reward you with a song off the new album,” Tweedy said before starting in on Schmilco tune, “If I Ever Was a Child.” The song – which had been released the month before – married a light, almost-country twang with Tweedy’s upbeat crooning. Tweedy invited the crowd to sing along to fan favorite “Jesus, Etc.” before treating them to another new tune, “Locator.” The first few chords of 2007’s “Impossible Germany” elicited screams from the crowd before melting into a light, Sunday evening dream. “I can’t think of any other place I’d want to call home,” Tweedy said as he removed his hat and led the band through the last song of the set.

The first encore was a three-song ode to 1996’s Being There that seemed to end almost too abruptly – but the group wasn’t done. Taking the stage for the third and final time of the evening, Wilco treated the crowd to an eight-song acoustic set to round out the full-bodied show. Tweedy and Bassist John Stirratt cozied up to a single microphone with the rest of the band seated just behind them. Acoustic guitars, a banjo and more helped the group strip down songs from across multiple albums. “It’s Just That Simple” and “What Light” shined in the acoustic set, taking second place only to “California Stars” – a tune from 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, which is comprised of previously unheard lyrics by American folk singer Woody Guthrie and performed by British singer Billy Bragg and Wilco. The acoustic set seemed to be a win-win for both fans who wanted to hear the classics and those ready for something new.