For the second summer in a row, Wilco is playing an outdoor gig in Minneapolis right before it’s about to drop a new album. The difference this year: The band actually clued us into its plans.
“We were pretty careful about orchestrating that and keeping it a secret, so it was no slight to you,” bassist John Stirratt explained, referring to last summer’s surprise LP with the equally surprising name, “Star Wars.”
Fans in the Twin Cities — one of the band’s best markets since frontman Jeff Tweedy’s days in Uncle Tupelo and Golden Smog — were more shocked than others when the record arrived without any warning just days after Wilco headlined the Basilica Block Party. A little heads-up and maybe a song preview or two might’ve been nice, guys. We go back a long way.
Fortunately, the Chicago-based Americana rockers are already back for another sunset gig Saturday at Hall’s Island on the Mississippi riverfront. Not only do they plan to debut some of the “Star Wars” tracks in concert locally, they also might give us a taste of their next curiously titled album, “Wilco Schmilco,” announced last month with a Sept. 9 due date.
“Our plan is to at least play the two songs that have already been released online,” Stirratt said. “That can always evolve as the tour goes on.”
Talking by phone Sunday just one day into the tour, the bassist said they’re “still operating very much in a ‘Star Wars’ tour mode. The songs off that record still feel very fresh and exciting to us.”
Issuing last year’s record the way they did added to the excitement. “The idea was to maybe get out of the normal album-release-press cycle and do something less conventional — and just let the fans hear the record first,” he explained.
“It was a lot of fun from our perspective, actually, just to see the surprised reaction. And it was kind of funny to watch you guys [critics] have to review it on the fly.”
A ‘Star Wars’ trilogy
The big surprise with “Wilco Schmilco” might be how different it is sonically from its predecessor. Where “Star Wars” featured some of the band’s most dissonant, disjointed and outright playful rock tunes, “Schmilco” is decidedly mellow and semi-acoustic, with not one song longer than four minutes. It actually sounds more like the 2014 album Tweedy put out with his son Spencer Tweedy, “Sukierae” (although a few tracks also recall the mellower tunes on the band’s groundbreaking 1996 double-LP, “Being There”).
Stirratt said the songs on “Schmilco,” “Star Wars” and “Sukierae” were mostly all written over the same period but were intentionally bundled separately to reflect different moods and sonic traits.
“It was a really prolific creative period for Jeff that spans all these records,” he said. “That’s happened in the past with the band, too: We’ll have a batch of songs that fit one genre or distinct character, and others that fit another mold.”
The tracks on “Schmilco,” he said, “were a lot of songs that Jeff had pretty well formed on his own, with some input here and there from Glenn [Kotche, drummer], but the rest of us only kind of came in at the end to do our thing. There are a few tracks we did as a full ensemble, but not nearly as much as on ‘Star Wars’ or most of our other records. It was interesting — almost liberating — to do it that way, with the songs already well-shaped.”
The band’s only other original member besides Tweedy, Stirratt first came to Minneapolis as a touring member of Uncle Tupelo in March 1994 when the band played two nights at First Ave with opener Joe Henry. Uncle Tupelo would soon splinter into two bands, with its other co-leader Jay Farrar starting Son Volt with two members of Henry’s band at the time, Twin Cities brothers Jim and Dave Boquist.
“Something about Minneapolis has always had a coming-home feeling for us from the very beginning,” Stirratt said, remembering that Wilco played its first show outside of Chicago at 7th Street Entry in November 1994. “We always respected the bands from that scene so much, and then we got to know the Jayhawks guys and Kraig [Johnson] and Run Westy Run. It’s always had an extended-family vibe when we come there.”
The vibe within Wilco has also been noticeably familial since 2004. After several different lineup changes and a tumultuous personal period around the band’s acclaimed 2001 album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the current — and seemingly permanent — six-man lineup settled into place that year with the addition of guitar wiz Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.
Stirratt underlined their continued brotherhood when he laughingly tried to explain the band’s rather absurd album titles of late. See also: 2009’s “Wilco (The Album).”
“There’s always a pervading sense of humor that comes into those kind of discussions when we’re all together,” he said. “Coming up with some sort of darker album title often just doesn’t seem right, given the fun environment the records are recorded in. What can I say? We’re having fun.”