Switchfoot returned to headline Celebrate Freedom Atlanta 2011, bringing their characteristic spirit, their rock chops, and an unexpected dose of improvisation.

I love the band’s live show, and I’ve written elsewhere about frontman Jon Foreman’s crowd-wandering antics. But this show was special, and as the band works out live versions of their upcoming release Vice Verses they continue to demonstrate their desire to craft the best music possible. That much was evident in their sound check, bright and early that Labor Day Saturday, 14 hours before they were scheduled to hit the stage. This was an hour when rock stars are not supposed to be awake. But there they were, going over and over a section of one of those new tunes, “Afterlife”. More guitar. Less guitar. More keyboard. Less keyboard. They tweaked and fiddled, and the whole thing sounded great to me every time. In the end, they didn’t even play the song during their set.

Later that morning, three members of the band held a mostly-unadvertised “listening session” during which they answered questions and discussed a handful of the new songs.

Finally, that night, the concert was outstanding. The lights and atmosphere were surprisingly effective for a festival stage. There’s something about Jon Foreman awash in red light that speaks rock-and-roll:

 

 

Yellow works too, as guitarist Drew Shirley demonstrates…

 

 

You know what? Forget the colors. Black and white, the Vice Verses motif, suits the band just fine:

 

 

Not unexpectedly, Jon once again found his wanderlust in the middle of the set. First he wandered over in front of the Jumbotron, creating an almost disconcerting image of the real Jon Foreman in front of MEGA JON FOREMAN!!

 

 

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But disconcerting is no good for a concert (Get it? disconcerting! Ha!), so Foreman took off into the crowd. A skilled spotlight operator fortunately kept up with him; otherwise the show would have devolved into a Where’s Waldo game.

 

 

Judging from their demeanor onstage and their chatter afterwards, I think the band had a genuinely good time during the show. Nearing the end, I don’t know if they were pressed for time (festivals impose fairly strict time limits on each band) or if they were just having so much fun, but Foreman made a quick change to the set. He acknowledged, “This is the part where we’re supposed to leave and you’re supposed to cheer and then we come back, but let’s just keep going!”

I had the perfect vantage point for what transpired next, all in a matter of seconds. “Meant to Live”, with its killer opening guitar riff, was schedule to be the encore song. Without a break, Drew realized he wasn’t set up for that song yet. He made a quick glance back to the band’s road manager, who nodded as if to say, “Yes, apparently Jon wants to do that song right now.” In an instant, Drew doffed one guitar, grabbed another from a rack, stomped on his pedals to find the right setting, strummed a single chord to make sure he was all set, and struck his classic rock star pose:

This show will only get better once more of the new album makes it into the rotation, so keep an eye out for a Switchfoot tour stop near you.