Friday, April 06, 2018

Jonathan Wilson Takes Flight

The last time I saw Jonathan Wilson he was hundreds of feet away from me, across the Barclay’s Center, playing the role of the “Resident Hippie” in Roger Waters’s band on a night of his excellent Us + Them tour. Now, he was close enough to touch on the stage of Music Hall Of Williamsburg, leading his own band in a rendition of Trafalgar Square, the lead track from his new album, Rare Birds. Mere seconds into the mini-epic, the blowing snow and howling winds outside felt like a distant memory, as did the Pink Floyd jukebox in which he so expertly participated last November. Well, not entirely, as there’s a touch of Floyd in Wilson’s new music, along with bits of Beatles, country rock, Avalon-era Roxy Music and even New Age textures. But it’s all turned to his own ends in what is his most personal and original collection to date.
Dan Horne, Wilson, Josh Adams and Jason Roberts
His all-new band could not have been more perfect both visually and musically. There was Dan Horne, the bassist, a refugee from The Stooges in denim and a graphic Tee, holding down the bottom with weighty finesse. Jason Roberts, the guitarist, stylish in a buttoned-up jacket, doing the George Harrison shuffle as he levitated the room with his precise and passionate lead and rhythm work. The drummer, Josh Adams, was equally at home in spirited dialogue with Wilson in an explosive version of Dear Friend from the last album, or keeping metronomic time on a drum pad for Over The Midnight from the new one. Brooding and bearded, keyboard player Peter Remm added sweep and scope with synthetic sounds or more naturalistic organ and piano. All of them were brave even to audition for this gig as Wilson can play circles around most professionals on all of their chosen instruments. The fact that they made it is further testament to their prowess.

Roberts sharing a moment with Peter Remm
At the center of it all was Wilson himself, who owned the room whether on guitar or piano, his confident presence a world away from the first time I saw him on an even smaller stage, the Mercury Lounge, back in 2012. A contributing factor to his increased assurance may be his voice, which has become more flexible and expressive since the slightly tentative vocals on 2011’s Gentle Spirit. That his songwriting has also grown was illustrated when he swung into Desert Raven from that album, so satisfying with that twin-lead riff, but also checking the “classic rock” boxes with high fidelity. New songs like Me or Sunset Blvd mix things up in ways that take more chances, confusing some of his fans who reject his turn toward a more richly textured sonic palette, with swaths of electronics and tracks deeply stacked with collage-like touches that only an intuitive genius would even think to add. 

Laraaji and Wilson entering a new age
One brilliant leap he makes on Rare Birds is the aforementioned embrace of new age textures and attitudes, picking up threads from collections like Light In The Attic’s I Am The Center and (The Microcosm), along with reissues of albums by StairwayAlice Coltrane and Laraaji. The latter is one of the most prominent guests on the album, lending his warm yet rough-hewn vocals and hypnotic zither to Loving You. Laraaji was a special guest at MHOW, too, and one of the reasons I trekked out in the nor’easter to see the show, having missed the last time they performed together in 2014. He took the stage almost as if he were on his way somewhere else - and maybe he was - wearing an orange jumpsuit and carrying a matching shoulder bag along with his zither. Taking a seat at stage right, he and Wilson exchanged a brief glance before starting the song.

Laraaji’s calm, centered presence lent a sense of occasion to the performance and harmonized with the loopy Eighties-digital ashram feeling of the rear-screen projections perhaps better than anything else. As mesmerized as I was by Laraaji, I was also left baffled by an electronic instrument Roberts played on Loving You, a small board with a zigzag of caution tape on the side facing us. I imagine the other side had some kind of touchpad, as he was using his thumbs to cause a wondrous array of squirrelly and squelchy sounds to emit from his amp. He never let us see that side, however, and was careful to carry the thing offstage with him at the end of the night. On his set list he notated “T” or “J” for the Fender Telecaster Deluxe or Jazzmaster guitars he used on most songs; for Loving You it was just an inscrutable “I.” Feel free to weigh in if you know what the heck that thing was!

Roberts with the mystery instrument
 In the case of the title track from Rare Birds, however, the concert rendition was like an X-Ray of the song, with Roberts breaking down the multiple guitar parts into a series of statements, using a multitude of pedals with precision to create the necessary sounds, from pretty, chorused strumming to ripping, distorted lead lines. It was his (and, presumably Wilson’s) ingenuity that solved the guitar part, but it was his wicked joy in playing it that gave it life. When I listen to the song now, one of my pleasures is peeling part the mix in my mind to appreciate those guitar parts again. 

Roberts, playing all his parts with precision (on a Jazzmaster)
Wilson has always been unafraid to go to some odd places lyrically, putting over lines like “Wait, can we really party today?” with a glazed sincerity that makes them work. On Rare Birds, maybe due to the influence of longtime collaborator Father John Misty, he takes even more chances than usual, with varying results. 49 Hairflips, for example, runs the gamut from the bonkers to the sublime. The opening lines had me questioning my sanity slightly and certainly qualify as the weirdest Bob Marley reference ever: “We were burning, we were looting, we were learning one or two things about life/We should fuck right in front of them, just to show them our light/We’ll be fucking, we’ll be sucking, while the rest of them are posting their lives/Ah, these kids will never rock again/Sign of the times.” Er, ok. The chorus is equally wacky: “49 hairflips! 49 hairflips on DayQuil” - say what, now? But then he gets to this devastating couplet: “I’m not leaving these walls without the prettiest song I can find/Miss your laugh most of all, really miss it tonight.” 

His delivery makes it go down easy, though, and turns the opening lines of Sunset Blvd into a true tour de force: “There’s a cherry on top tonight/For men who look like Jesus tonight/If you play your cards right/You can be the son of god, tonight.” The way he swallows the last repetition of the word “tonight” tells an entire story in novelistic detail through sheer emotion. Moments like that make it very easy to forgive any poetic infelicities that may crop up. And when he's direct and to the point, as on the ecstatic There Is A Light, the results are truly glorious. Having Lucius sing backing vocals on the album version doesn't hurt, either!

In any case, Wilson has always been about the full package of composing, playing, and production and on Rare Birds he has advanced by leaps and bounds across all metrics, delivering that elusive thrill of hearing an artist not only meet their potential but exceed it by a wide margin. And onstage at MHOW last month he proved that he could be generous enough to share his expanded vision with the other musicians and the audience to deliver a storming and dynamic show that defines what a rock concert can be in 2018. Miss him at your own risk.
Snapshots of The Shacks
Up-and-coming New York band The Shacks opened the show, presenting a polished set of their 60’s-psych and 70’s-R&B infused songs. The main drivers of their sound are Shannon Wise’s wispy, yet rhythmically acute vocals and Max Shrager’s sharp guitar, which can veer from psych solos to Nile Rodgers rhythms. They reminded me a little of The Clientele in their single-mindedness and there was a touch of Saint Etienne in the canny critique embedded in their pop art. If I didn’t hear that one killer song yet, there are more tunes to choose from on their debut album, Haze, which just came out. Between Wise’s star power (she was already in an Apple ad) and their assured sound, however, I would say they are well on their way. 

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