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 (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.
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.
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."
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.
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.