When I was growing up, my father was a Protestant minister. So I spent many a Sunday morning squirming in uncomfortable wooden pews, trying to fake my way through the Lord's Prayer and slipping an alternative lyric or two into Sunday hymns. Though I never particularly took to organized religion, and generally dreaded the one hour a week I was forced to spend in the brick confines of the Charlotte Congregational Church, my father's sermons never ceased to amaze me. In many ways they laid the foundation for my life as a musician and writer.
Dad never wrote a word of his homilies on paper. Not a one. His harangues were completely off-the-cuff, typically consisting of what George Carlin would call "brain droppings" accumulated over the course of the previous week. Wild tangents were Rev. Bolles' stock and trade, though, more often than not, he was able to corral his flurry of ideas into a coherent companion piece to the theme of the week's scripture. It was a neat trick, and it's essentially the same way I approach this column - though whether I'll ever reach Pop's level of proficiency remains to be seen. After all, he did have Jesus on his side. Me? Not so much.
Over the last week, I've been mulling over my lengthy relationship with Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy's voluminous body of work, in hopes that I could sermonize a bit myself. Here we go.
I've been listening to Jeff Tweedy since he was one-half of the seminal alt-country act Uncle Tupelo's songwriting tandem. Like many disaffected and depressed high school students, I spent way too much time drowning in the misery of my favorite songwriters, and UT's final album, Anodyne, was in frequent rotation. I remember my first encounter with the song "New Madrid" like most people remember their first kiss - fortunately for me, they're related.
In any event, fans of Uncle Tupelo were typically split into two camps when the band dissolved: Jay Farrar and Son Volt, or Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. Initially, neither band strayed too far from the formula that had made UT so successful. Wilco's A.M. and Son Volt's Trace could easily have been combined into one great Uncle Tupelo record and no one would have batted a tear stained eye. As it was, the two albums would be the last time the bands intersected in any way, shape, sound or form.
While Farrar continued down the alt-country dirt road, Tweedy began to experiment with a variety of sounds and musical deconstruction. Wilco's second album, Being There, though heavily rooted in traditional alt-songwriting, hinted at the creative explosion brimming beneath Tweedy's romantically anguished surface.
I happened to catch Wilco at just the right time in my life. Like most good friends do, we became close through shared experiences and development. I've never met Jeff Tweedy, but he's nonetheless an important figure in my personal growth. As he was experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines on Summerteeth, I was spending the summer experimenting with drugs and sex.
When he and Billy Bragg took a stab at re-inventing lost songs from the Woody Guthrie archives, I was re-inventing the approach to my own songwriting and my lifestyle in general - see "sex and drugs" from the previous paragraph.
Nearly every new Wilco album has coincided with a significant phase of growth for me personally, and their new record Sky Blue Sky is no exception. So it was that I found myself at Shelburne Museum last Friday, seeing my old friends for the first time as a professional music writer.
If you're looking for a hard critique of the show, stop reading right now and go pull up http://Pitchforkmedia.com on your web browser. I'm sure they have plenty of self-important, hipster-chic ramblings on the decline of Wilco. I'm just not gonna be that guy.
Are they dad-rock? Sure. Whatever. Is Tweedy's post-rehab songwriting a bit blunt and clumsy? Absolutely. But does the new incarnation of the band still rock? You'd better believe it.
Wilco tore through a full set and two encores sounding as vital and inventive as ever. Avant-guitarist Nels Cline not only faithfully re-created his precious work from the new disc, but added flourishes and melody lines that breathed new life into a slew of songs across the band's hefty catalogue. "Shot in the Arm," from Summerteeth, was especially impressive, as was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "Jesus, Etc."
I left the show feeling renewed affection for a band that I've essentially grown up with. Will changes in my life continue to intersect with new Wilco efforts? Maybe. But at this point, I couldn't care less. These guys have been close friends and confidants for more than a decade, and if they get a bit dad-rockish in their old age, so be it. Happens to all of us eventually.
Now, where did I park my Volkswagen?
AND ANOTHER THING
Sorry to write a freakin' novel there. I could have gone on, but a few other things really deserve some attention. Here they are, in no particular order.
Zack Martin has been a busy lad lately. In addition to his typical duties as the booking guy at 242 Main and a member of local experimental rockers Carrigan, he recently scored a 16-minute film for PBS's "Frontline World." The short is centered around India's growing population of homeless children and the efforts to provide alternatives to life in the street.
Martin's contribution is a score of remarkably genuine Indian tabla and sitar music, played by Tim Sharbaugh and Steve Pierson of White Raag. It's especially impressive when you consider that, as Martin himself puts it, "I was completely ignorant of how to put together such music." Could've fooled me.
You can view the film. "India: A New Life" at http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld.
Closer to home, The Monkey House has an interesting show lined up for Friday night. The Cave Bees will rock the House supported by Bean-town transplant Neil Cleary, who is fresh off the road after touring with local ex-Phish-man Page McConnell. While that alone is worthy of navigating downtown Winooski's bass-ackwards rotary, what makes the evening even better is that it's the last night of freedom for the Bees' Steve Tremblay and Rebekah Whitehurst, who tie the knot the following day. According to guitarist Creston Lea, the show promises to be "a veritable parade of Burlington rockers past and present." Sounds good, but do we have to bring presents?
And finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Casiotone for the Painfully Alone performing at the Kriya Studio this Saturday. If you're unfamiliar with Casiotone, just read through the name one more time, really slowly. Done? Good, cuz that's exactly what it sounds like. Joining in the fun will be West Coast popsters The Donkeys and The Moon Bank, which is made up of members of The Jazz Guys and Lendway and play music inspired by old Nintendo games. No really, they do.