WXRT's 4th of July concert in Grant Park


July 5, 2001


Amid all of the fireworks and the barbecues, it's easy to forget that Independence Day is intended to commemorate a uniquely American spirit--one that builds on tradition while simultaneously embracing radical change.

The high points of WXRT-FM's annual Fourth of July concert at Grant Park on Wednesday were two great American rock bands, groups that paid tribute to this country's rich musical legacies while being almost revolutionary in the freshness and creativity of their approaches.

Kicking things off at the Petrillo Bandshell, the North Mississippi Allstars drew entirely from the reworked hill country blues standards on their debut album, avoiding the promising new original material from their forthcoming disc, ''Phantom 51.'' But this was the only disappointment during a galvanizing hourlong set.

Led by guitarist-vocalist Luther Dickinson, the hard-rocking trio is as irreverent in its approach toward the blues as the Yardbirds were in the mid-'60s. In stark contrast to the stilted sounds of other young white prodigies like Jonny Lang, Dickinson feels free to twist and contort the music in countless interesting directions, at one moment evoking the free-flowing jams of the ''Baby Dead'' bands, while at the next recalling the metallic crunch of Cream or 10 Years After.

The group barely paused to take a breath during its soulful assault, running one song into another and ebbing and flowing like the muddy waters of the mighty Mississippi. Luther's brother, powerhouse drummer Cody, kept the rhythms pumping, while lumbering bassist Chris Chew underscored his position as the group's secret weapon, adding gospel-tinged harmonies to the Dickinsons' unholy din.

Even more potent was the headlining performance by Chicago's Wilco.

Jeff Tweedy and his newly reconfigured band started with a powerful statement, performing two of the most inventive songs on their next album and challenging the hometown fans to follow them on a continuing journey away from their alternative-country roots toward a much more fractured, complex and personal sound.

The band premiered five songs from ''Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,'' which is due to be released in September. The surprise wasn't how much tunes like the minimalist epic ''I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,'' the horn-driven ''I'm the Man Who Loves You'' and the haunting and holiday-appropriate ''Ashes of American Flags'' stood apart from the older material, but how they complemented and informed earlier standouts such as the lilting ''California Stars,'' ''She's A Jar'' and the rave-up guitarfest, ''Feed of Man.''

Playing his first show with the group, drummer Glenn Kotche proved to be an invaluable addition, joining multi-instrumentalists Jay Bennett and Leroy Bach to subtly decorate the melodies with bells, shakers and percussion while also kicking it in fine country hoedown spirit with bassist John Stirratt.

As is often the case, Tweedy didn't have much to say to the crowd beyond the poetic emotions expressed in his lyrics. ''Merry Christmas,'' he cracked at the end of the set--proving that the revolutionary spirit always celebrates in its own distinctive way.

As the middle act on the bill, Minneapolis frat boys Semisonic pandered to yuppie pop sensibilities in their typically unctuous way, shucking and jiving through prefab hits such as ''Chemistry'' and ''Closing Time.''

Sandwiched in between two extraordinary bands, the effect was like serving one of those awful Jell-O molds with bits of carrots in it between some lobster and an expertly grilled filet mignon.