Jay Bennett Tribute at the Hideout

Sunday (Nov. 15) was the birthday of Jay Bennett, the talented musician who died earlier this year. His friends celebrated his life and music with a show Sunday night at the Hideout. It’s been months since Jay died, but the sorrow still feels fresh. Hearing folks like Edward Burch, LeRoy Bach, Steve Frisbie, the Dolly Varden band, Brad Elvis, John Peacock and Quartet Parapluie playing songs written by Bennett — or in some cases, songs by other people that he loved — it was hard for me not to get choked up.

I regret missing the first part of the show (I was at the opening night of House Theatre’s delightfully surreal Mark Guarino play with Jon Langford songs, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds), but I showed up in time to hear Quartet Parapluie’s exquisite string arrangements of “Songs That Weren’t Finished” and “Venus Stopped the Train.”

Burch was half of the Bennett and Burch duo that recorded The Palace at 4am (Part I), my favorite post-Wilco Bennett record, so it seemed appropriate that Burch was the focal point of this show, organizing it and functioning as emcee. Many of the performers shared stories about their experiences with Bennett, which added an element of humor to an evening that might otherwise have been unbearably sad.

A bunch of the musicians came together onstage at the end of the night, playing really nice, spirited versions of some of the best songs off Palace, including “Puzzle Heart,” “Talk to Me,” “Whispers or Screams,” “Shakin’ Sugar,” “Drinking on Your Dime” and “My Darlin’,” which slid into a cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” with everyone singing along. The last song of the night was one of the best-known tunes Bennett co-wrote with Jeff Tweedy, using lyrics by Woody Guthrie, the classic “California Stars.” Hearing this string of great songs, it became painfully clear what a great talent we’ve lost.

Photos from the Jay Bennett tribute.

Wilco does the arena-rock thing

After years and years of seeing concerts in Chicago, I had never actually gone to a show at UIC Pavilion until Sunday night, when Wilco played the first of two nights at the arena. I would so much rather see concerts at a small venue than some big concrete dome designed for sports events. But, alas, there are times when the bands you like become popular — wait, that’s a good thing, right? And then it no longer becomes possible to see the bands inside little rooms the size of Schubas. So you end up in a crowd of thousands of people inside a big concrete dome where the music echoes off the walls like the noise of passing airplanes. But then there can be moments when you feel a sense of awe that all these people around you like that music that you like, too. Maybe you even get a feeling of community.

This week, Wilco moved up to its biggest venue yet in Chicago (unless you count their two Lollapalooza performances). I’d prefer seeing Wilco in one of the big downtown theaters like the Chicago or Auditorium, but this time, they were in the less cozy confines of UIC. And, well, they put on a pretty great show Sunday night, despite the lackluster surroundings. Of course, I never doubted that Wilco was capable of putting on a great arena show, since this versatile, virtuoso band seems to be capable of doing just about anything leader Jeff Tweedy asks of it, from straight-ahead roots rock to stranger and more experimental art rock.

This lineup of Wilco, which has been steady for a few years now, sounded as good as I’ve ever heard them Sunday night. As these six musicians played songs from throughout the Wilco catalogue — including many songs originally played by different Wilco lineups — they made it all sound like one coherent body of work. The clattering curiosities in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” were still there, but the noise that guitarist Nels Cline was making during that song made it sound more like something that today’s Wilco would record rather than a remnant from a previous Wilco era.

Cline was on fire Sunday night. Within seconds after the band came onstage and began playing the first song of the night, “Wilco (The Song),” Cline was flailing around wildly with his guitar like a maniac. And he kept it up during the second song, “A Shot in the Arm.” It seemed more like the frenzied climax of a concert than the opening. What got into this guy? It’s been clear that Cline is a very talented guitarist, who can run rings around most people, since he joined Wilco, but on Sunday night, he combined that virtuosity with a high level of passion and energy.

The rest of the band sounded great, too, of course. Wilco is, if nothing else, a true ensemble of six musicians who know how to blend their sounds together into a brilliant whole. As usual, Wilco played a sample of songs from throughout its albums. It was nice to see John Stirratt taking over lead vocals for the rarely played A.M. song “It’s Just That Simple,” and I was glad to hear a few songs from the album I love that a lot of other people dismiss, A Ghost Is Born. Wilco even dug out one obscurity, the bouncy ditty “Just a Kid,” from the soundtrack to The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

Tweedy asked the crowd to sing the lyrics to “Jesus etc.” and stepped away from the mike for virutally the entire song, and the crowd happily complied. The encore included a surprisingly long string of songs from Being There: “Kingpin,” “Monday,” “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” “Hoodoo Voodoo.” And then, just when it seemed like the show had ended after some 2 hours and 15 minutes, the band launched into one more song, the lively, absurd “I’m a Wheel.”

At one point during the show, Tweedy asked, “Having a good time? Enjoying the arena rock?” The answer was: Yes. But I’d still rather see Wilco somewhere other than an arena.

Set list:
Wilco (the Song) / A Shot in the Arm / Bull Black Nova / You Are My Face / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / One Wing / Misunderstood / At Least That’s What You Said / Deeper Down / Impossible Germany / It’s Just That Simple / I’ll Fight / Handshake Drugs / Sunny Feeling / Jesus etc. / Theologians / I’m Always in Love / Hate It Here / Walken / I’m the Man Who Loves You / ENCORE: You Never Know / Heavy Metal Drummer / Just a Kid / Kingpin / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind) / Hoodoo Voodoo / I’m a Wheel

Remembering Jay Bennett

I happened to be in Champaign-Urbana this weekend when a sad news story broke: the death of Jay Bennett, a remarkably talented musician I had interviewed several times over the past eight years. Bennett was best known for his role as lead guitarist, keyboardist, all-around studio whiz and occasional songwriter in Wilco, making an indelible mark on much of the band’s best records, including Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth. He also recorded several solo records and one in collaboration with Edward Burch, the excellent The Palace at 4am (Part I).

But I first encountered Bennett back in the 1980s, when he was the lively guitarist for Titanic Love Affair, a hard-rock band on the University of Illinois campus. Here are some photos by David Ghent showing him in action, which I ran when I was an editor at the Daily Illini in 1988. Bennett’s fluid guitar playing impressed me at the time, and I was already hearing that he was talented at recording music.

In June 2001, when Wilco was finishing up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I interviewed him for the first time. We sat on the back porch of his house in Arlington Heights, Illinois, with birds singing in the background. Click here for an extended version of the article I wrote, including a Q&A. I had no inkling that Jeff Tweedy would ask Bennett to leave the band a few months later, but that is in fact what happened. I was stunned at the time. Bennett had contributed so much to Wilco’s music, it seemed impossible he would be fired. You can read all about what happened from multiple angles in Greg Kot’s book Learning How to Die. I later came to realize that Bennett was a genius whose obsessive work habits might just drive some people a little crazy. But I never lost faith in his musical abilities.

At that first interview, I was struck by how much Bennett seemed like a combination of rock-star dude, philosophical intellectual and VCR repairman. In April 2002, as Bennett and Burch released Palace, I interviewed him again. The Q&A is so long it’s in two parts: Part 1 is mostly about The Palace at 4am (Part I). Part 2 is mostly about Bennett leaving Wilco.

A year after that, I spent a couple of hours at Bennett’s recording studio in Chicago, focusing more on his production techniques and gear for a story in Tape Op magazine.

I’m posting a 13-minute podcast here with selections from those three interviews. What you hear is a few minutes of Jay talking in 2001 about collaborating with Tweedy in Wilco; Jay explaining what happened when he left the band; Jay in his Pieholden Suite studio, where the great young musician David Vandervelde was hanging out at the time; and then some additional thoughts from that 2002 interview. Click here to download my podcast featuring Jay Bennett in his own words. (My apologies for the spotty audio quality in some segments.)

The last time I wrote about Bennett was at the end of 2004, when he was releasing a solo album called The Beloved Enemy. He had also seemed upbeat whenever I’d interviewed him, but lately, I’d been hearing alarming reports that he seemed depressed or intoxicated at some live performances. One fan was concerned enough to post a question on the message board of Bennett’s record label, Undertow Music: “Is Jay OK? Seriously.”

“The answer to ‘Am I OK?’ is a resounding ‘Yes,'” Bennett said when I asked him about this. “I am going through a divorce. … I certainly had my issues with drinking.” He also acknowledged having used drugs, though he said he didn’t currently have a problem with substance abuse.

“Most of my adult life, I’ve been a drinker. And I’ve dabbled in everything else that most rockers have done. Was it to the point that it interfered with my life? I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve had my share of rock ‘n’ roll excess, where it was impeding my judgment here and there … I had friends express concern about me. At various times in my life, I was self-medicating. I have an anxiety disorder. I’ve been though seven therapists in five or six years. I’ve finally found one who clicks. It works.”

When he first answered his phone that time, Bennett was in the middle of a therapy session. He said he also viewed his latest records as a kind of therapy. “This record is a way to get rid of some of that pain by expressing it,” he said. “Drugs and alcohol were a way to deal with that same pain.”

Bennett, who had moved to Urbana, made news just a few weeks ago when he filed a lawsuit seeking royalties from Wilco. He’d also posted a note on myspace saying he was in need of a hip replacement. It sounded like he was facing some serious health problems.

Strangely enough, the reason I was in Champaign this weekend was for the Play or Pose reunion event featuring local rock bands of the 1980s: the Outnumbered, Lonely Trailer, Cowboy X and the Poster Children. (I’ll blog more about that later.) At an open-mike event on Saturday, a number of people asked, “Where’s Jay?” — hoping he would attend, even if he did not perform. His former bandmates from Titanic Love Affair were there in the bar, and one of his ex-Wilco mates, Leroy Bach, performed a beautiful set of three songs. But Jay was nowhere to be found.

The next day, the word came via Twitter and Facebook messages from Undertow Music that he had died in his sleep the night before. Sunday night’s concert at the Highdive went on, and it had some of those great moments when you feel the triumphant power of music, but the evening also had a shadow hanging over it. At a few points, the musicians on stage asked audience members to lift their drinks to Bennett’s memory. Steve Tyska of Cowboy X said, “Champaign was a very important place to him, and he was very important to Champaign.”

Back when I interviewed Jay in 2002 about leaving Wilco and recording Palace, we spoke for more than two hours, and my mini-Disc recorder ran out of space just minutes before we concluded. And so, alas, I failed to get a recording of his final remarks that evening. I scribbled them down as quickly as I could. Here is what he said:

“There’s a basic human urge to be understood. I could be accused of trying too hard to be understood… When in reality, only the people closest to you understand you… I do like the idea of putting the whole transcript [of this interview] on the Internet, right down to my last words, which are: Peace, love and understanding to the world, including my ex-bandmates.”

First impressions of new Wilco CD

When bands put out self-titled records in the middle of their careers, what exactly does it mean? Is the band saying that this is the record that defines them more than any other? Or have they just run out of titles? The new Wilco album, coming out June 30, is called Wilco (The Album), which makes it almost seem like a joke. And with that cover photo of a camel, you have to wonder: What exactly is Wilco up to with this record?

It’s streaming now at http://wilcoworld.net/discs/thealbum/, and I just listened to it for the first time. Here are my snap impressions of the songs. My opinions are bound to change as I listen more. I’ve been a fan of Wilco since the beginning, but I was disappointed with the group’s previous record, Sky Blue Sky — not a bad record, but one that simply failed to excite me the way previous releases had. So far, Wilco (The Album) sounds like a stronger effort.

Track 1: “Wilco (the song)” — The record opens with a nice blast of the rollicking pop sound that Wilco used to have, back in the days of Summerteeth and Being There. The whole idea of doing a song called “Wilco (the song)” seems a little silly, but the track makes a good first impression.

Track 2: “Deeper Down” — This is one of those quiet Wilco songs where Jeff Tweedy sings in a gentle, sensitive tone. The song has some ornate touches, including strings and a harpsichord-like keyboards, but the arrangement feels spare, and the tempo is surprisingly quick.

Track 3: “One Wing” — Some cool guitar work by Nels Cline, a lulling chorus. The blend of Tweedy’s songwriting and the guitar flourishes here feel like a perfected version of what the band was trying to do on the last album, Sky Blue Sky.

Track 4: “Bull Black Nova” — The song starts out all staccato, with Tweedy singing about a car as a piano ticks off repeatedly. There’s something about this that sounds like the 1970s, but then the track veers into some strong guitar soloing — is that a guitar duet between Kline and Tweedy? The song builds into a stranger piece than it seemed at first, like a simple little ditty that’s become an art-rock epic.

Track 5: “You and I” — A classic-sounding Tweedy acoustic ballad. Just a touch of guitar wankery at the end, as the track fades out.

Track 6: “You Never Know” — More of that 1970s feeling, a pop song with a chorus that sounds like something Harry Nilsson might have done, with a touch of George Harrison slide guitar at one point.

Track 7: “Disappeared” — Tweedy softly singing high notes over a subtle arrangement with piano as the lead instrument. The chorus has a wistful air that reminds me of “Jesus Etc.”

Track 8: “Solitaire” Acoustic guitar and space-rock keyboard sounds blend together in a beautiful opening. Tweedy sings an instantly catchy melody with lyrics that are probably going to stick in my mind as well: “Once I thought the world was crazy…”

Track 9: “I’ll Fight” — Starts off like a solo acoustic folk song, but then the band kicks in and Tweedy chants an insistent, simple melody. Feels a bit like an anthem, but it’s tamped down, without the fist-pumping chorus it could have had.

Track 10: “Sonny Feeling” — An upbeat track, with the sort of shifting instrumentation that Wilco’s big ensemble of musicians can pull off like few other bands.

Track 11: “Everlasting Everything” — Tweedy sings, “Everything alive must die…” Touches of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”? This has the feel of a big album-closing ballad. The record ends with just a little bit of psychedelic guitar with that backwards-sounding sound.

Overall, a good first impression. But I doubt if Wilco (The Album) will become the Wilco album that defines the band for me.

Jeff Tweedy at the Vic

As much as I like Wilco and everything that band does to flesh out Jeff Tweedy’s songs, there’s still something special and extraordinary about seeing Tweedy perform a solo concert. It’s strange how his music flows along these two parallel paths: acoustic music, usually heard only in concert, and band arrangements of the same songs, heard in studio recordings and Wilco concerts.

Tweedy played two solo gigs for a variety of charities over the weekend at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, and I caught the second of these shows, on Saturday (Feb. 14). Tweedy mostly played a set of songs requested by the first 30 people who were standing in line outside the theater. And as he noted, those people tend to be the geekiest of fans, so their requests skewed strongly toward obscure Tweedy songs not found on the main Wilco albums. It was a B-side sort of concert, which was fine with me. It’s cool to hear some of these rarely played tunes.

Tweedy’s guitar playing and singing were in fine form. I especially enjoyed “Spiders (kidsmoke),” which Tweedy played in a streamlined arrangement much shorter and more direct than the epic krautrock version that ended up on the album A Ghost Is Born. I love this song in all its incarnations, but hearing it again in its acoustic form was a vivid reminder of the song’s roots.

We heard a couple of new songs, which will apparently be on the Wilco album coming out this summer. Tweedy joked that the band is thinking of calling the record either Diver Down or Van Halen II.

Tweedy also played several covers, including Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” which he has been doing lately. I always associated Wilco and Radiohead for some reason — maybe just because they are two popular bands, one from the U.S. and one from the U.K., that are constantly pushing their music in new directions — and so it felt great to hear Tweedy playing a song normally associated with Thom Yorke. He made it sound like a Tweedy song, hitting those high notes in his own distinctive hoarse falsetto. The other covers included the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which Uncle Tupelo recorded years back, Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” and that old Tweedy favorite, Bill Fay’s “Be Not So Fearful.”

Like every Tweedy solo concert, this one featured more than its share of shouted song requests and comments from the audience, including one obviously drunken joker who twice bellowed out a request for “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That prompted some cutting responses from Tweedy, who knows how to handle a heckler. (“Guys who yell out things at rock concerts don’t ever get laid,” he noted.) Still, Tweedy’s replies only seemed to encourage more ridiculous shouts from some parts of the crowd. As much as I enjoy seeing Tweedy banter with his fans, it would be nice to get through at least half of a concert without so much yacking.

According to the amazingly complete and interactive Wilco/Tweedy set-list database at wilcobase.com, Tweedy has been ending all of his recent solo shows by stepping up the front lip of the stage and playing at least one song without the usual amplification. On Saturday, the song that got this treatment was “Dreamer in My Dreams.” Singing without a mike is one way to get the crowd to shut up.

New song (“You and I…”)
One By One
More Like the Moon
New song (“I Will, I Will…”)
Radio King
A Magazine Called Sunset
Simple Twist of Fate
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
The Long Cut
At My Window Sad and Lonely
So Much Wine (Butterfly)
I’m Always in Love
I’m the Man Who Loves You
New Madrid
Someday Soon
Blasting Fonda
Fake Plastic Trees
All The Same To Me
Pecan Pie
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Wilco the Song
The Ruling Class
I Wanna Be Your Dog
Jesus, Etc.
Be Not So Fearful
A Shot in the Arm
Hoodoo Voodoo
California Stars
Dreamer in My Dreams