Monday, October 29, 2007

sunken song

One show down, one show to go--it definitely wasn't an average night out, even for me, but compared to other distances I've traveled between shows, rushing a couple of miles across town is a veritable cakewalk.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 10-25-07Nels Cline Singers (with special guest Jeff Parker), Cafe du Nord, October 25, 2007: Originally, I figured I'd duck out of the Herbst Theatre around 9, catch a cab, and make it to Cafe du Nord in the nick of time--but the scheme soon derailed. First, I realized there was no way I could leave Glenn Kotche's show early. Then the concert, in fact, went a little longer than expected. And to top it off, Van Ness was apparently a No Taxi Zone, so my fortunes were left to San Francisco Muni. It's amazing I made it to my destination at all.

Lucky for me, shows at Cafe du Nord rarely start at the time listed on the club's Web site, so I managed to catch the last 15 minutes of the Nels Cline Singers' first set. "Sunken Song" was already underway, then the group closed the set with "Something About David H.," one of my favorite tracks from The Giant Pin. Can a work be elegiac and white hot at the same time? Because that's how it came across to me.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 10-25-07

After a short break, the Singers returned with an additional face: Jeff Parker from Tortoise. Not long ago, if you took bets on which Chicago group Nels Cline might join, I doubt that Wilco would place very high, whereas Tortoise would stand as one of the front-runners. Funny how things work out, but still, it's sort of amazing that it took so long for Nels to hook up with a member of Tortoise.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 10-25-07

I thought we were due for a set similar to what my friends in the Midwest witnessed a couple of years ago, but early on, Nels revealed to the audience that the group had settled on a selection of titles that they all sort of knew. Thus, we got a trio of Ornette Coleman tunes (perhaps inspired by the legend's appearance at the San Francisco Jazz Fest over the weekend), as well as some works by more obscure artists that I can't begin to guess at. Nels, in his typically understated manner, also confessed that perhaps they should've rehearsed at least one of those tunes, while other, more oblique (and presumably original) forays moved Nels to state that "some of those don't have names."

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 10-25-07

If you want an academic breakdown of what they played, you've come to the wrong place. All I can say is that, to my ears, the pleasing, swinging beat that marked a few of the songs could qualify as classic jazz. But this being a Nels Cline Singers show, we got more than one jagged, sprawling barrage of instrumentation, some of which even coalesced into something resembling a song.

I've watched Nels play with numerous musicians, but his shows with the Singers reveal a facet of his musicianship that you don't see much when he's a supporting player. I mean, Nels's creativity and intensity come through no matter what project he tours with, but with the Singers, he's the undisputed leader. Often, he cedes the floor to the other players for their solo turns, but have no doubt--he's already wordlessly directed them to run with the passage. And when he's feeling it, either in his own playing or his colleagues' contributions, he lets them know with approving roars and infectious grins.

Nels Cline Singers, Cafe du Nord, 10-25-07

Though my Wilco fandom predates both Glenn and Nels's time with the band, the two of them have a lot to do with why I come back to the group again and again. I didn't need these shows to remind me that we've seen only a portion of their talent so far, but it's unlikely I'll ever assume anything less now.

Addendum: It was pleased to see that I wasn't the only one show-hopper tonight; at the end of the gig, I spied Glenn Kotche in the audience at Cafe du Nord as well.

See also:
» anomaly

Sunday, October 28, 2007


No one needs to be a rock tourist, especially when you live in a city that hosts your three favorite members of your single favorite band for a trio of unrelated gigs all in the same month--much less the same night, as was the case Thursday, when Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline played conflicting shows only a couple miles from each other. For all my willingness to book a cheap flight to whatever town for a random gig, it's nice when the artists come to me. Thus, scheduling conundrum aside, I wasn't about to let this local opportunity pass me by.

Kronos Quartet with Glenn Kotche, Herbst Theatre, October 25-26, 2007: How many times in your life do you get to witness the world premiere of anything (other than, maybe, a made-for-TV movie)? Well, there was the time I happened to be parked in front of the set for MTV's world premiere of Madonna's "Dress You Up" video, but honestly, it was no "Thriller."

But a world premiere was indeed part of tonight's billing, and that, along with Glenn's participation, was the most concrete piece of information I had about the show. Then again, I've taken bigger leaps of faith.

I'm the first person to admit that this sort of work falls far outside my very limited realm of musical knowledge. For example, the program reported that Glenn's composition would be presented in seven movements. I wouldn't know a movement if it slapped me in the face, though I figured we could expect seven discrete components. Where one ended and another began--once again, don't ask me. But ignorance be damned, I wouldn't have missed this show for anything.

What I can tell you is that the work started with each member of the quartet picking up an unusual instrument--chimes, bells, and other ephemera--and coaxing a gentle intro from each, while accompanying themselves with audible sighs and breaths. The cumulative effect made me wonder if Glenn had taken some inspiration from the title of his bandmate's recent release, Draw Breath by the Nels Cline Singers.

It gets a little fuzzy from here, but Glenn eventually joined in, supplying the percussion he's better known for. At times, he set a forceful, driving beat; at others, he added the subtle shadings of sounds elicited from his stable of out-of-the-ordinary implements; and for notable stretches, he did absolutely nothing but monitor the other players with a watchful gaze until it came time to hit his cues. The Kronos Quartet, in turn, eventually came back to the stringed instruments for which they're better known, though they'd revisit their array of whirligigs and whatchamacallits throughout the piece.

And though my description doesn't convey it so well, it wasn't all humorless intensity and concentration. During one of my favorite movements (?), Glenn and the quartet's Jeffrey Zeigler matched each other beat for beat as they whipped identical clacking noisemaker-like items back and forth, the whole time grinning at one another. In a separate segment, the quartet played handbells, sometimes applying bows and brushes to them, bringing to mind The Bells of St. Mary's as staged by, say, Laurie Anderson. In yet another portion, the music came in the form of small twigs or strands straw snapped by the quartet.

From the first time I heard him play with Wilco, I've been struck by Glenn's musical abilities--not something you can say about many drummers. My appreciation shot up another notch with these performances, as I saw for myself how Glenn's artistic ear extends far beyond his drum kit, as well as how other musicians respond to his guidance. It was sort of like finding out that the guy you know who does those amazing wheelies on his dirt bike also happens to occasionally race in wind sprints alongside Tour de France champions.

I've now had numerous opportunities to take in Glenn's work outside of Wilco, and his shows have always left me at least a little more enlightened. It's easy to pick out the elements in his solo performances that he brings to the band, but just as provocative are the sounds and influences that haven't percolated through to his mainstream work. Who's to say if any of these ingredients will ever make their way to Wilco's opus? I wouldn't bet against it, though.

This was my first time seeing the Kronos Quartet, who were as terrific as everyone says they are. Their opening selections were especially impressive: a contemporary, sample-heavy number by Amon Tobin; a modern selection of works by John Zorn, which hit nearly as much on the comical level as much as they did on the musical level; and Raymond Scott's classical, nostalgia-inducing "Twilight in Turkey," which practically invited you to recall all the Warner Bros. cartoons that made use of the tune. It should come as no surprise, however, that my favorite segment of the show outside of Anomaly was their take on Television's magnificent "Marquee Moon."

Glenn's composition was actually the last portion of a two-hour show that also featured two other young composers, Walter Kitundu and South Korean singer/dancer Dohee Lee, and their original works written for the quartet. At the end of the second night, all three composers joined the quartet for the show-closing bow.

See also:
» feels lucky to have you here
» sunken song

Sunday, October 21, 2007

thinking of traveling by land

You can convincingly argue that I've never practiced moderation when it comes to Wilco. Even at the very beginning, before I had any idea where this fascination would take me, I happily ponied up for the band's three-night stand at the Fillmore (a distinction in my concert history shared by only one other group: Pavement). Those days seem to be long gone, but that hasn't stopped us from piecing together three-show strings of our own.

Wilco, Iowa Memorial Union, Oct. 14, 2007Wilco, Iowa Memorial Union, October 14, 2007: I have a soft spot for Iowa. Granted, I had already embarked on several excursions to see Wilco by the time I arrived at the Val-Air Ballroom in Des Moines in 2003, but that was no ordinary jaunt. Sure, there was a trip to Grantham, Penn., that predated that Midwestern detour, and I had traveled to Chicago, New York, and other major cities to see the band before. But Iowa?!? Give me a break!

But the show turned out to be an incredible experience, one of my favorite memories among who knows how many concerts. First and foremost, there was the amazing collection of people, many of whom have become great friends. Add to that the lively show, the awesome venue, an impromptu ice cream social, and the unexpected meet-and-greet. Then factor in Nels Cline's cameo appearance--a sneak peek into the future--and you might have an idea of why that gig stands out among the multitude of shows I've seen.

Of course, Iowa City is not Des Moines, nor is the Iowa Memorial Union the Val-Air. But it offers one of the other venue subsets we love: student unions! And since we counted an alum among our number, we could even explore the campus and the town with some guidance and knowledge. On top of that, our crew welcomed one more favorite face--yay!

Wilco, Iowa Memorial Union, Oct. 14, 2007

Coming off the heels of Kansas City, Iowa City offered both improvements and detractions. To start off, we were situated at the very lip of the stage, where Brianne and I pondered the dubious prospect of staring up at Jeff's neckard for the show's entirety. This proximity actually made for cool photo opps and let us in on the band's interactions, but on the other hand, with the PA behind us, we sacrificed sound. Though the instruments came through loud and clear, Jeff's vocals were muffled, sounding like some of the below-par bootlegs that used to circulate before Wilco made official its pro-taping policy.

Wilco, Iowa Memorial Union, Oct. 14, 2007

In addition, the crowd's energy fell short of the previous night's ardor. It's hard to get a true feel for the audience when you're at the front, but my guess is that the relatively young crowd was simply not familiar with some of the older material. Though I could hear cheers for "Too Far Apart" coming from somewhere back in the room, the young faces around me seemed impassive through the number--far from the jubilant reception the song has enjoyed at other gigs I've attended.

Then again, there wasn't that much older material, at least not compared to what the band played in Kansas City. But we got at least one song I never thought I'd hear at a Wilco show: "It's Just That Simple," featuring John Stirratt on lead vocals. I'm not the song's biggest fan, but I loved seeing Wilco play it, if only to witness John and Jeff swapping places, with Jeff taking the bass, seemingly in a zone of his own making. Additionally, it was great to have John on lead vocals, and Nels touched the song with the more understated, fluid elements of his musical repertoire.

Wilco, Iowa Memorial Union, Oct. 14, 2007

Though I'm not convinced the people around us brought their A-game to the show, the band didn't seem to suffer the same effects. Thus, we saw Glenn twirling his drumsticks during "Heavy Metal Drummer," Mike slashing away at Nels's guitar, Jeff working his American Idol fingers during the falsetto ending of "Too Far Apart," and even Matrix sporting a Mexican wrestling mask at the end of the second encore.

Wilco, Iowa Memorial Union, Oct. 14, 2007

During "Jesus, etc.," Jeff asked for Andrew Bird to join the band, but Andrew had already left for a long drive to his next show in Indiana. Iowa City's loss is Columbus's and Detroit's gain, apparently, as they teamed up in both towns. At this point, it's ridiculous to feel bitter about missing some shows, but that doesn't mean I can't nurse a small grudge.

Andrew Bird, Iowa Memorial Union, Oct. 14, 2007

See also:
» got a lot of your records
» try not to pretend

Thursday, October 18, 2007

got a lot of your records

Before Wilco's gig in Kansas City even began, we'd already driven 8-plus hours through four states, picked up three more delightful travel companions, learned the pleasures of hawk spotting on the plains, shopped for adorable galoshes, and scarfed down delicious barbecue--all in a day's work for the rock tourist.

Wilco, Crossroads, October 13, 2007: Wanna know how great the Kansas City show was? Consider this: Though the squirrelly queue procedures gave us hives and we were stuck behind a 10-foot-deep pit filled with about 100 audience members who had forked out for $75 VIP tickets, we loved the gig! It helped that the VIPs were actual enthusiastic fans, as opposed to bored, spoiled industry folk, so it was hard to resent them. But truly, it came down to the boisterous energy (which Jeff himself characterized as "infectious") bouncing between the band and the audience.

Wilco, Crossroads, Oct. 13, 2007

This was my first time ever in Kansas City, much less the state of Missouri, and ordinarily, I'd set the scene with random observations and maybe even a rationalization or two. But this is no time to be coy. In short, this show featured one of the more surprising setlists I've heard from Wilco in a while. Not that you'll catch me complaining about the continued inclusion of, say, "Spiders," but it's impossible to not get excited by the airing of the older tracks. Joining the now customary "Too Far Apart" were three more tracks from A.M. As Brianne and I noted after the show, Sky Blue Sky--the album the band is ostensibly promoting--clocked in at five tracks, or only one more than the debut album, tonight.

Wilco, Crossroads, Oct. 13, 2007

According to WilcoBase, I was privy to "Casino Queen" with this lineup a few years ago, though I can't recall it. However, I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever heard this particular crew do either "Box Full of Letters" or "Pick Up the Change." As you might expect, "Box Full of Letters" and especially "Casino Queen" enjoyed a huge guitar injection, while "Pick Up the Change" picked up more keyboards. But details, shmetails--they were great additions, the kind that make me think I can continue to see this band for a lot longer.

Wilco, Crossroads, Oct. 13, 2007Elsewhere during the show, we got a bunch of jokes at the expense of Elton John (who was breaking in the brand-new arena down the block the same night), enjoyed a fireworks display overhead, and shielded our ears from the cries of the crowd's reigning scream queen. Frankly, I pay an alarming amount of attention to Nels, but when he's draping over his shoulders a flannel shirt thrown onstage by an audience member, hopping over to the other side of the stage to join John in hyperactive glee, or simply drawing out those magical chords from his guitar (all of which made Jeff smile, by the way), he's a sight to behold, and his enjoyment is indicative of the playful streak infusing the entire group these days.

Andrew Bird opened once again, but solo this time. Before the show, Sam informed me that the phonograph-looking contraption onstage is actually a Leslie cabinet turned inside out--mystery solved! Andrew's music lost some of its nuances without the backing band, but at the same time, his own abilities came to the fore, as you realized it was just Andrew making all that glorious noise.

Andrew Bird, Crossroads, Oct. 13, 2007

p.s. Look, Tom, pictures of the back of people's heads!

See also:
» try not to pretend

Monday, October 15, 2007

try not to pretend

Sign No. 4,878 You've Found Your People: You pick up exactly where you left off three days earlier!

Wilco, Northrop Auditorium, October 10, 2007: The short answer as to how this trip, which started off with plans to visit B's new condo and to see Wilco in Kansas City and Iowa City, came to encompass Minneapolis as well: the red-eye and those aforementioned People.

I always thought a concert at the legendary First Ave. would bring about my first ever visit to Minneapolis, but alas, the subjects of my rock tourism aren't about to grace the venue soon, though for entirely different reasons. Reserved seating wouldn't normally draw me to a faraway town either, but B's amazing ticket karma landed us in the third row of the pit, at the far left on Nels Cline's side--no complaints here!

Wilco, Northrop Auditorium, Oct. 10, 2007

I'm not going to tell you that the band has radically reinvented itself in the month since I last saw them. But this leg of the tour, like its predecessors, isn't a carbon copy of earlier outings either. Of course, tracks from Sky Blue Sky enjoy an edge, and at this point, certain songs have emerged as the live powerhouses, perhaps none more so than the peerless "Impossible Germany," though "Side with the Seeds," "Hate It Here," and "You Are My Face" easily qualify as well, and they all dazzled tonight in the Twin Cities.

Wilco, Northrop Auditorium, Oct. 10, 2007

But one of my favorite parts of every show is seeing how the band makes use of its back catalog. I love that "Too Far Apart" has settled into the regular setlist, but by the end of the night, the spotlight rested on my favorite Being There, starting with the opening track "Sunken Treasure" and once again for the first half of the single, long encore--which leads me to the requisite Nels Cline Appreciation Hour.

Back in August and September, Nels's playing grew stronger with each passing night as he shook off the chicken pox, though you'd be hard-pressed to find him slacking on the tunes. A month later and with the ailment behind him, Nels made clear the benefits a full recovery when he interjected the older tracks with some feverish guitar work that made even his fellow band members look over to see what he was up to.

Wilco, Northrop Auditorium, Oct. 10, 2007Being slightly farther than usual from the stage, we noticed other details as well, such as the tour's former star, the macrame owl, now tucked away behind Mikael's station or, in a completely contrasting vein, the awesome, rolling beat Glenn brings to "Jesus, etc.", to name two. I also need to mention Jeff's bright, silly mood (showing off his falsetto at the end of "Too Far Apart") and the guest appearance of Gary Louris for "California Stars," which he picked up quite well, confidently punching up the melody with slashes of heavy, distorted guitar.

Opening the show, Andrew Bird and his band bathed the room with a gorgeous, adoringly received set that served as a perfect Cliff's Notes version of their full show. I actually have a ticket to their gig here in San Francisco scheduled for December, but that date is now questionable, due to other potential plans. Lucky for me, this tour with Wilco may render those scheduling concerns moot.

See also:
» i have no idea how this happens
» we'll fight for your music halls

Friday, October 12, 2007

we can be us

Sign No. 4,877 You've Found Your People: After (originally) two friends agree to fly across the country to hang out for a weekend, see a free festival, and generally have fun, they easily acquiesce to a less-than-24-hour detour that takes them to another city, where another traveling pal is waiting. No sweat.

Jon Brion, Largo, October 6, 2007: For the past few months, my Wilco and Jon Brion schedules have complemented each other beautifully, allowing me to scurry away to see one party at a time. Jon took July, while Wilco gave me lots to look forward to in June and August. Technically, they both crowded May and September, but I wasn't exactly complaining. The October surprise threw me for a small loop, but I think we hit a happy medium.

Opening tonight was Todd Carlin, sometimes known as the Naked Trucker or even as David "Gruber" Allen, his real name. Calling himself a "warm-up artist," he expounded on some of the same topics he covered the last time I saw him, but he added a hilarious new section of haikus. I won't try to get across any of them, except to say that "jump on the 405" became our catchphrase for the next 24 hours.

Jon launched with "Take Five," which I believe was inspired by a reference to Dave Brubeck in Todd Carlin's act. Jon, however, sort of threw everything but the kitchen sink at it, a motif that carried through to his next number, "Same Thing." Oddly, this normally resilient song sounded a bit discordant, and not in a good way. I think there were one too many elements at play during this outing; when Jon subtracted one of the numerous rhythm tracks he had piled on, the tune finally sounded right again.

He stayed at the piano for the Eternal Sunshine theme, then switched to electric guitar for "Meaningless," a request from an audience member who turned out to be quite persistent, though highly predictable. I believe this same audience member supplied the call for "Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad." Jon built it through layers and was applying a variety of guitar styles (starting with big power chords, then wending his way to fuzzy distortion) when his strap broke before he could finish out the song.

Switching gears, he went into one of his most straightforward numbers, "Excuse to Cry." "Oh Susanna" served as a prelude to "Knock Yourself Out," thus satisfying yet another title thrown out by the loud requester (who had now grown annoying). Then again, some people also believe that given an infinite number of monkeys typing away, one is bound to produce Hamlet.

At this point, Jon definitely started asking for requests. Of all the improbable numbers thrown at him, he took up one of the least likely: the Star Trek theme, complete with lyrics (who knew there were any?!?). Armed with only the tiny Korg and his vocoder, he launched right into that familiar theme, and though the vocoder obscured most of the lyrics, he clearly knew the lines, even if we couldn't tell exactly what they were.

The next trio of songs were (I think) all unreleased tracks from Jon's catalog. "The Way It Went" might be the only one with a confirmed title, but the first song was one he's done several times now, and it's an epic, with an amazing build. It's hard to characterize, except to say it might take a cue from Bowie's late-'70s output. The last song made its debut only a few months ago, I believe. At the time, I thought it might be a Todd Rungren number, as it bore some resemblance to the spate of Todd's tunes Jon had done the night before. At this point, though, I'd be surprised if it turned out to be anything other than his own.

When Jon introduced the night's guest appearance, he actually managed to answer the other question running through our minds: What was John Krasinski doing at Largo? He was accompanying his good friend Ben Gibbard, of course, who hopped to the stage to join Jon.

I've never been a fan of Death Cab for Cutie, but I found Ben to be a charming addition to the Largo stable. Oddly, though I don't particularly care for his band, I have to admit that Ben has some great tastes in music, an idea that first occurred to me when I heard the band cover Julian Cope. The streak continued with Jon and Ben's first cover of the evening, a song that I always associate with Tracey Ullman (remember how Paul McCartney was in the video?!) but that Ben rightfully credited to its writer: the late, great Kirsty MacColl. For the Everly Brothers tune, Jon turned the piano mic to the front of the stage, picked up the celeste, planted it on his lap, and facing the audience, served up harmonies to Ben's lead. Finally, they went with one of Ben's own, which he was supposed to record to Jon at some point, though those plans fell far by the wayside.

With Ben gone, Jon asked for more requests and tore into one of my favorite covers, "Heroes." The reemergence of this tune in Jon's shows has been one of my favorite developments of the last year or so. I didn't bother trying to clock it, but even if that instrumental build had gone on for an hour, I don't think I'd mind. I recall that in previous performances, Jon's been playing out the song on piano on keyboard, but he let the guitar do the talking tonight, all the way to the very end.

For the last song of the first set, Jon asked for covers once again and readied his guitar for the Les Paul-style treatment. As he started playing and working through the foundation of the song, my mind latched on to something about the tune that sounded intensely familiar, though I couldn't quite place it. Heidi, however, was grinning uncontrollably. By the time Mike cruised by to fill us in on the title of the mystery tune, Heidi had already spilled the beans, and I was singing along to the chorus. It turned out to be "Nowhere Man"--my request, which Jon had greeted with a slight guffaw when I had shouted it out. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I would've figured it out without my friends, so I'm glad I was able to enjoy in full something I always wanted, even if not in exactly the style I've always envisioned.

The second set started off with two discrete piano pieces: one in the ragtime style, the other a cooler, more abstract treatment. (This is where a youth misspent on British haircut bands really bites me on the ass.) Jon credited Ellington for the latter, but beats me exactly what song it might've been.

"Flight of the Bumblebee" popped up as a request, and since it seemed to go over so well earlier, Jon used nothing more than the vocoder to--literally--sing the tune. I think he threw in part of the Lone Ranger theme, as well.

Jon treated the next sequence of songs in a fairly traditional manner, except for "After the Gold Rush," which he didn't do quite in full, though he tried out the couple of passages he remembered, in a Neil Young-worthy pitch, no less. He bestowed a particularly lengthy instrumental intro to "Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key," so much so that I thought he was just vamping, but nope, it eventually found a lovely form.

When our requests failed to inspire him, Jon asked for some assistance from Scott in the soundbooth, who pumped out a hard, cold beat, eventually leading Jon to "Wild Thing," but sounding more like Tone Loc than anyone else. Jon followed this muse down a couple of avenues, at times reminding me of old-school favorites such as "Planet Rock" and "Egyptian Lover." Then again, there was definitely a quote from Scott Joplin in there, so I could be miles off base. At the end, Jon called it a "Duke Ellington soundtrack from Ishtar"--odd bedfellows.

I'm pretty sure someone asked for "Star Spangled Banner," which Jon broke down into different time signatures on the guitar, though there was no mistaking the tune itself. "That's Just What You Are," which I always love, required piano and harmonica this night. And for the final number, he stripped "Same Old Scene" of the Eurodisco elements in which he had previously draped the song and went with only piano and celeste, showing off, once again, Bryan Ferry's songwriting chops.

See you in November.

Set 1
--Todd Carlin opener

--Take 5
--Same Thing
--Eternal Sunshine theme
--Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad
--Excuse to Cry
--Knock Yourself Out
--Star Trek theme
--Better You Than Me [new song]
--The Way It Went
--Please Stay Away from Me [new song]
--They Don't Know *
--All I Have to Do Is Dream *
--One Fast Move or I'm Gone *
--Nowhere Man [Les Paul style]

Set 2
--ragtime piano
--Duke Ellington piano instrumental
--Flight of the Bumblebee
--This Is Where I Belong
--After the Gold Rush
--Hook Line and Sinker
--Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key
--Wild Thing [sort of]
--Star Spangled Banner
--That's Just What You Are
--Same Old Scene

* = with Ben Gibbard

See also:
» her little heart it could explode

Monday, October 08, 2007

feels lucky to have you here

Not so long ago, if you wanted to watch me squirm, all you had to do was ask me one simple question: If Wilco/Jeff Tweedy and Jon Brion were playing the same night--and all other factors being equal--which would I go see? I still think it's an apples-and-oranges comparison, but I actually have an answer now.

Jeff Tweedy, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 5, 2007: Festivals are great in concept, allowing you to sample a smorgasbord of artists in one fell swoop. I used to travel to England to indulge in this summer tradition, but as my tastes have grown more, errrr, specific over the years, the mix-and-match nature of most festivals has become less attractive to me. Of course, there's always an exception, and if a free festival practically in my backyard with Jeff Tweedy as the headliner can't get me out the door, I don't know what can.

I have to hand it to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass folks; they don't phone it in. This year, the stage had already been built and the fields prepared by the time we got to the park at a fairly early hour of the morning. All we had to do was walk right down to the sweet spot and spread out the blankets to mark our space, which gave us plenty of room to welcome Dr. Judy and her family when they arrived. Sharing the expanse were Trish, Sinead, Brianne, Andrew, and me--a far cry from last year, when I navigated Elvis mostly by myself.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2007

Jeff was, in fact, the first performer we saw that day, when he emerged for a short soundcheck. Before he returned for his headlining slot, however, we took in the day's other artists. Augie March showed that they were capable of covering a good selection of musical styles, though it seemed like they left almost as soon as they began. Buddy Miller was an early crowd favorite, and he performed a cover of "Rock, Salt, and Nails," which I had no idea was in his repertoire until Brianne mentioned it earlier that day. T Bone Burnett and friends had several technical problems, but Neko Case sounded as amazing as ever. She did only three songs on her own before John Mellencamp joined them, at which point she was relegated to backup duties. Still, it was a kick to hear her singing harmony on "Pink Houses"--a song I never thought I'd hear live and in person, even when it was an MTV staple.

John Mellencamp, T Bone Burnett, and Neko Case at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2007

T Bone's set went a bit long, which made us wonder how Jeff would fare. Our concerns, as it turned out, were unfounded, as he was called back for an encore and went a good half hour past the supposed 7 p.m. curfew, delivering a truly satisfying selection of tunes. Early on, he attempted to downplay expectations by informing the crowd that there wouldn't be much bluegrass in his set. No worries there, especially when he's playing up some of the folksier angles, such as songs by Woodie Guthrie and Uncle Tupelo, as well as the twangier end of Wilco's spectrum.

I admit that I have a bias toward the older songs, such as "New Madrid," which I will never refuse an opportunity to hear. But aside from sentimental favorites, the two titles that certifiably lit up the evening were "Someone Else's Song," sung in that high register I love (see "Gun"), and "Summerteeth," to which we contributed some excellent backing vocals, if I do say so myself. But don't take my word for it--the artist chimed in with his agreement, and I may have spied some nearby faces in the audience smiling back at us when they realized what we were doing. No shushing here!

Jeff Tweedy at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2007

It was kind of weird seeing Jeff--the only solo performer of the day--all by himself on such a big stage. Fortunately, the Blue Angels had ceased their exercises long before his set started, so at least there was no overhead buzzing to distract us. Overall, he handled the daunting stretch of bodies well, joking with the audience and frequently looking toward his family, who were watching from the side of the stage. I just pray that he didn't resurrect "cock" with his brief foray back into that word's terminology. On the other hand, I can confidently say that "loves me some" and "true dat" will continue to live on for some time, despite his best efforts.

As for the rest of the festival, Brianne and I missed Saturday (check back later to find out why), but we returned Sunday, when Andrew had secured our amazing spot, thanks to his dogged determination, his convenient jetlag, and his sheer cult of personality, judging by all the new friends he had made while we were gone. Sunday was, for me, my first ever taste of bluegrass at this festival, and though it'll never be my music of choice, I can't tell you how far I've come aesthetically to be able to listen without prejudice.

Earl Scruggs and his six-piece band showed off the fullness of these supposedly simple tunes, while Doc Watson was charm and talent personified, playing alongside David Holt, as well as his grandson Richard Watson. Finally, there was the transcendent Emmylou Harris; I don't know if it was the setting, the company, or the songs themselves, but I found myself getting a little choked up when those multipart harmonies kicked in. When David Rawlings showed up to watch her set from the photographer's pit (and almost got kicked out by a well-meaning but uninformed security person because he wasn't wearing his badge!), an entirely different emotion, however, took over. Yowza!

See you next year!

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