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(Above: Andrew Bird and his band break into some bluegrass at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., on March 23, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Indie rock singer/songwriter Andrew Bird told the crowd at the Uptown Theater on Friday night that this was his first “proper” show in Kansas City. The statement conveniently overlooks his 2007 opening slot for Wilco at Crossroads, but in a way it was true. Bird flew solo opening for Wilco – Friday he had a full band.

When an artist can call on as many musical talents as Bird – who plays violin, guitar and glockenspiel and sings and whistles – it begs the question of what an ensemble can bring to an already rich arrangement.Bird started both the main set and the encore alone, showcasing his considerable talents. The hallmark of Bird’s one-man-band performances was how he layered and looped his plucked, strummed and bowed violin to create a singular orchestra. With those elements and his virtuosic violin talents front and center, “Carrion Suite” felt a bit like a recital.

As the band entered during “Nyatiti” each musician gradually revealed what he could bring to an already full table. Alan Hampton’s bowed upright bass at the end of “Desperation Breeds …” coupled with Bird’s violin to create psychedelic chamber music. His electric bass playing paired nicely with Bird’s loops to add extra urgency and muscle to several songs, including a dynamic “Plasticities.”

Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker rarely took a solo, but added great texture and feeling, especially on “Lusitania.” At times, the dimensions of plucked violins created the same kind of percussive atmosphere favored by Paul Simon. Drummer Martin Dosh had no trouble enhancing and playing off those polyrhythms.

Despite all the musical elements happening at once, the sound was pristine, with each instrument clear and distinct throughout the night. An impressive light show enhanced each performance. As a series of lights cascaded over the crowd, the four abstract sculptures hanging over the stage looked like flames, whisps of smoke or clouds depending on the mood.

The 100-minute set drew heavily from this year’s “Break It Yourself” album. The night ended with a sound impossible to replicate alone, as Bird, Ylvisaker and Hampton played crowded around one mic. Their acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies blended masterfully on the dark “So Much Wine” and hopeful “I’m Goin’ Home.”

Setlist: Carrion Suite > Nyatiti, Danse Carribe, Desperation Breeds …, Measuring Cups, Fitz and the Dizzyspells, Give It Away, Eyeoneye, Near Death Experience Experience, Lusitania, Orpheo Looks Back, Scythian Empires, Plasticities, Tables and Chairs > Fake Palindromes. Encore: Dr. Stringz, So Much Wine (Handsome Family cover); I’m Goin’ Home (Charley Patton cover).

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(Above: Ryan Adams improvises a song about his pet badger at the Music Hall in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 1, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

In a night that covered more than two hours and comprised 21 songs, including hits, rarities and fan favorites, the most memorable song may have been the one that didn’t even exist when the concert began.

Mistakenly hearing a fan’s song request as “My Badger,” singer/songwriter Ryan Adams immediately composed a song about his new pet badger “Admiral.” Containing references to the USS Enterprise, Mariah Carey and “Glitter” and the perils of domesticating wild animals, it was the “Iliad” of improvisation. The song contained four verses, a chorus and whistled bridge. It probably would have featured a drum solo if Adams weren’t the only performer onstage.“My Badger” wasn’t the only spontaneous song during Wednesday’s performance at the Kansas City Music Hall. The off-the-cuff material provided a nice contrast to Adam’s less-than-uplifting lyrics and allowed the singer to poke fun of himself as well. g.”

In the past, detours like those could have easily turned into wormholes that derailed the performance. This current solo/acoustic tour is an artistic showcase. Everything in the carefully crafted song arrangements and selections is designed to display Adams’ songwriting abilities. While Adams is a divisive performer and personality, there’s no question he has chops. A beautiful “Oh My Sweet Carolina” set the mood perfectly. Later, Adams gave a stripped down reading of his post-9/11 hit “New York, New York” on the piano, placing the familiar song in a new context.

For most of the evening, Adams was seated on a chair in the center of the stage with two red, white and blue Buck Owens-style acoustic guitars within arm’s reach. A notebook of song lyrics lay on a monitor at his feet. The low red lighting kept most of Adams face in shadows as he bent over his guitar, delicately finger-picking and strumming.

The setlist contained as many songs from Adam’s first solo album, 1999’s “Heartbreaker,” as his most recent, last year’s “Ashes and Fire.” In a way, the night had the same flaw as the album. Taken individually, every song was exquisite, but together they started sounding similar.

Varying tempos would have helped, but even upbeat numbers like “Firecracker” were slowed down. The songs that best fit the mood were the gentle “Please Do Not Let Me Go” and haunting reinterpretation of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” The sole number from Adams’ days in Whiskeytown, “16 Days,” was another standout.

Although stacking mid-tempo numbers created a steady stream of fans in and out of the theater, those who remained were pin-drop quiet during each song. Between numbers they shouted requests and egged on the singer’s eccentricities. There was nothing that would have converted an undecided listener, but after experiencing two frustrating concerts previously at the Uptown Theater over the years, the devoted finally got what they came for. And then some.

Setlist: Oh My Sweet Carolina; Ashes and Fire; If I Am A Stranger; Dirty Rain; My Winding Wheel; Sweet Lil’ Gal (23rd/1st); Invisible Riverside; Everbody Knows; Firecracker; Let It Ride; Rescue Blues; Please Do Not Let Me Go; English Girls Approximately; Two; Lucky Now; Wonderwall (Oasis cover); New York, New York; 16 Days; Come Pick Me Up. Encore: When Will You Come Back Home?; Sweet Illusions.

Keep reading:

Review: Old 97s, Lucero

Review: Social Distortion

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

 

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(Above: Wiz Khalifa’s “Rolling Papers” did not make TDR’s Top 10 list, but was one of its most-played and -enjoyed albums of 2011. Don’t hate, dance.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every music dork with a laptop is publishing their Top 10 list right now, but who else does it in haiku? Enjoy.

The Black Keys – “El Camino”

Building on “Brothers,”
pair trades blues for classic rock
with pal Dangermous.

The Roots – “undun”

Best band on TV,
builds challenging song cycle,
from flatline to birth.

F*cked Up – “David Comes Alive”

Like being hit with
a sledgehammer while feet are
ticked with feathers.

Big K.R.I.T. – “Return to 4Eva”

The South finally
joins the Native Tongue movement.
Backpackers rejoice.

Stalley – “Lincoln Way Nights”

Thoughtful baller makes
Intelligent Trunk Music,
blue collar portraits.

Wild Flag – “Wild Flag”

“Portlandia” star
pairs with fellow grrls to make
punk for NPR.

Raphael Saadiq – “Stone Rollin’”

Soul sound moves to ’70s.
Norman Whitfield, Sly Stone
Don’t call it neo-soul.

Hanni El Khatib – “Will the Guns Come Out”

Raw rock on Stones Throw
Does Elvis, Louis Jordan
by J. White, Stooges.

M83 – “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming”

Two mine catalog:
Gabriel goes orchestral,
Frenchman goes retro.

Wilco – “The Whole Love”

Band finally brings
live energy to LP.
Best since “Ghost,” “Sum. Teeth.”

Read more haikus

Top 10 albums of 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2009

 

Top 10 Albums of 2008

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 (Above: Charlie Louvin sings of the “Great Atomic Power” at a February, 2009, performance in Raleigh, N.C.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

My first exposure to the Louvin Brothers was on one of those “worst album covers of all time” Web sites. Standing in front of what appears to be a backyard BBQ gone horribly wrong, two Bing Crosby wannabes in matching white suits raise their arms in welcome. Above them, the title proclaims “Satan is Real.” Behind them, the most ridiculously fake, wooden Mephistopheles looms like failed a junior high shop class project.

A few years later, while visiting home during college, I decided this cover would be a perfect piece of art in my dorm room and went to the Music Exchange in search of a copy. I asked the man behind the counter (it wasn’t Ron Rook) if they had any albums by the “Lovin’ Brothers.”

“Do you mean the Loooovin Brothers,” he asked, making a point of drawing out the long “o” and informing the store of my ignorance.

“Um, yeah, whatever,” I stammered. They were out.

Sometime after that, I happened upon a CD of “Satan Is Real” at the Kansas City Public Library. After mocking its cover for so long, I had to hear what the actual music sounded like. Pretty freaking good, it turned out.

Charlie and Ira Louvin’s music wasn’t the kind I wanted to listen to that often, but when the mood hit it landed deep and only the Louvins would do. As if by magic, their names started appearing in the album credits of my favorite musicians – the Byrds and Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller, Uncle Tupelo. Far from a novelty act or wacky cover, the brothers’ influence was everywhere.

A couple years ago, a friend lent me his copy of the Louvin Brothers Bear Family box set. At eight discs it was way more than I’d ever need, but he swore it was the best stuff ever recorded. I respected his deep and diverse tasted and promised to dive in. I’ll now confess that I only just scratched the surface. A little country gospel still goes a long way for me.

This same friend also told me about the time he saw Charlie played the Grand Emporium. Only a few people bothered to show up for the full set peppered with stories and a fond remembrance of Ira, who died in a car crash near Jefferson City, Mo. in 1965. Afterward, Charlie hung out, reveling in conversation with his fans.

I made a mental note to see Charlie the next time he came through town. His next appearance was opening for Lucinda Williams. It was a dream ticket, but I had other obligations that night. Then were appearances booked at Knuckleheads and Davey’s Uptown. Just before the show, however, the performance would be cancelled. Then, miraculously, another date would be booked several months out.

Each time a show was cancelled I feared that I’d missed my chance. Wednesday my worries were confirmed: Charlie Louvin died from complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

My in-person opportunity may have vanished, but I have hours of his music to relish. As I think of Charlie reuniting with Ira at long last, a song by Gram Parsons, one of the brothers’ greatest disciples – in style, if not message – springs to mind: “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.”

Keep reading:

Review: Chris Hillman thumbs through his back pages

Carrie Rodriguez honors family, roots on new album

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

 

 

 

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(Above: “Go To Sleep” is one of many new songs rapper Lupe Fiasco has completed for his new album, “Lasers.” Despite submitting the album to his label two years ago, a release date of March, 2011, was just announced last week.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Today hundreds of young music fans will protest outside the headquarters of Atlantic Records in New York City as part of Fiasco Friday. A similar rally will also take place in Chicago.

The gatherings started as an frustrated discussion on an internet forum over Atlantic’s two-year refusal to release an album by rapper Lupe Fiasco. Inspired by success stories of similar incidents with Wilco and Fiona Apple, this new generation of fans want major labels to respect their voices.

“Lupe is just one part of a larger issue,” said 17-year-old Matthew LaCorte, one of Fiasco Friday’s organizers. “I would like Atlantic to stop interfering in the creative process of its artists and to help get a more positive message – a message like Lupe’s – on commercial radio.”

Tall requests, to be sure. Artists complaints of label meddling can be found in ever era of the music industry, and are a major reason why artists from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to the Eagles have divorced themselves from major label. Complaints of commercial radio playlists have increased – while overall listenership has decreased – since the 1996 Telecommunications Act allowed single corporations to gobble up more and more of the national spectrum.

 

Rapper Lupe Fiasco.

 

“Our goals mirror Lupe’s L.A.S.E.R.S. manifesto, which he posted online,” LaCorte said. “We want to alert people and tell the message of Lupe Fiasco, who’s music has a drastically different message from what you hear on the radio.”

In part, the 14-point manifesto declares an end to glamorizing negativity in the media, promotes environmental responsibility, individualism and political accountability, elevates substance over popularity and calls for the end of war and a “processed culture of exploitation, over-consumption and waste.”

But it will take more than T-Pain’s ubiquitous and chart-topping auto-tune to make these lofty goals part of any mainstream discussion.

“I’m not exactly sure what to expect from the rally,” LaCorte said. “I know we’ll have lots of signs and so some picketing. I’m planning on giving a speech, and I know we’ll have lots of chants and rally calls based on Lupe’s music.”

Oh, and Fiasco will be personally participating in the New York rally. In late September, Fiasco tweeted “well if y’all there…I guess I gotta be there too!”

“This started because we all wanted ‘Lasers’ to come out,” LaCorte said. “Last week Atlantic finally gave us a release date of March 8, 2011, so in a way we’ve succeeded. Fiasco Friday will be both a celebration of our success and a chance to protest issues we feel still need to be addressed.”

Fiasco is hardly the only rapper facing label resistance right now. Last week Nas raged against Def Jam’s refusal to release the second volume in his “Lost Tapes” series as part of his contract.

“Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago,” Nas wrote in his open letter. “I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my way because since day one I have been my own man.”

LaCorte said he was fine with Nas’ perspective. But when the original petition calling for ‘Lasers’” release was ignored by Atlantic, he knew it was time to make a bigger noise.

“Having fans protesting is not good for business,” LeCorte said. “But if we fans do this – petition, boycott, make phone calls, send letters and stand up for the musicians we admire – if we make our voices heard, there will be a change.”

Keep reading:

Review: Lupe Fiasco

Chuck D looks forward in reverse

Review: “How to Rap”

(Below: Howard Beale’s ever-relevant rant from the 1976 film”Network.”)

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(Above: Author Greg Kot discusses his book “Ripped” in this 30-minute radio interview.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When I was in graduate school I wrote my précis – an abridged thesis – on how the internet was changing the music industry. It was an exciting time. Napster was in full swing and Metallica’s lawsuit was not only breaking news, but new research ripe for my writing. (Incidentally, the record industry’s great hope at the time was to create a new type of CD that could not be copied or ripped to computer.) I was praised for my paper, but the research did not age well. Barely two years after graduation, its findings were horribly outdated.

Greg Kot fares much better in his recent book “Ripped” How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.” Published in 2009, he takes the long view on the digital evolution of the past decade. The book opens with an overview of how the major labels wound up on the wrong side of their consumers at the turn of the century. In the first three chapters, Kot covers the consolidations that homogenized commercial radio and placed extra emphasis on the major labels’ profit margins; the labels’ revolt against the payola system they built and established; and how labels quashed their artists’ efforts to embrace the Internet.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 pages, but Kot is wise not to belabor these points. Other books – notably Steve Knopper’s “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” which appeared a few months earlier – cover this ground in far more depth. Kot’s summary provides a nice launching pad for the real meat of his book, namely how the net has allowed artists and fans to connect in unexpected ways with unexpected results.

Today Prince is a punching bag for declaring the internet “completely over,” but his actions in the mid-‘90s laid the groundwork for the path Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and other bands currently follow. Walking away from his contract with Warner Bros., Prince built a network with his fans where he would release music directly to them, at a pace he dictated. Without the modern digital infrastructure, distribution was often slow and frustrating. It is puzzling that yesterday’s visionary opted out just when technology became the most accommodating.

Kot also discusses how the internet helped Wilco and Death Cab For Cutie develop an online cult following and how that translated to mainstream success. Another chapter is devoted to the impact of Pitchfork and other online tastemakers. The book ends with the stories of Lily Allen, Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Radiohead and how their business models have turned the industry on its head.

A music critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kot draws on his day job to incorporate first-hand quotes delivered in the heat of the moment. Putting the reader in the speaker’s mind in real time keeps the stories fresh and makes the linear exposition more exciting. Very little is revealed through hindsight; the reader gets everything as it occurs.

“Ripped” shares many traits with Thomas Freidman’s 2006 exploration of the online paradigm “The World is Flat.” Both books hold few revelations for readers who followed the events unfold in real time, but are also handy encapsulations of everything that has occurred. At the same time, they are immensely in explaining to the uninitiated how we got to where we are. Whether “Ripped” deserves a spot on the bookshelf or a visit to the library depends on the reader’s level of knowledge. Either way, it is worth reading.

Keep reading:

Review – “Record Store Days”

Radiohead Rock St. Louis

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

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(Above: Roy Orbison performs “(Oh) Pretty Woman” on “Austin City Limits” in 1983.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The musical landscape of television was of a different world when “Austin City Limits” debuted on Public Television 35 years ago. Brief performances on late night talk shows or segments on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” were the only options for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite act.

Baloons and the capital building, trademarks of the Flaming Lips and Austin City Limits.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates the show that put long-form performances on the air with the new exhibit “Great Music. No Limits. Celebrating 35 Years of Austin City Limits.”

“There were certainly music shows on television before, like Ed Sullivan, ‘Shindig’ or ‘Hullabaloo,’” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs for the Rock Hall. “But ‘Austin City Limits’ was the first show where the performers didn’t lip synch and were provided with a platform that extended beyond just a song or two.”

The exhibit includes photographs, setlists, documents and video footage of the show’s greatest moments.

“A big part of the exhibit are the photos from the show. We have 30 or more pictures of artists ranging from B.B. King, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band,” Henke said. “We also have a lot of different documents, including lots of early stuff like the proposal for underwriting the pilot episode and several handwritten memos.”

The memos show the evolution of the show’s title from “River City Country” to “Austin Space” before finally settling on the current title.

The Hag on ACL.

“We also have three setlists from Wilco’s performance where you can see which songs were added and changed before they went on,” Henke said.

“MTV Unplugged,” “Sessions at West 54th Street” and “Soundstage” are but a few of the shows Austin City Limits has inspired during its run. In 2002, the show spun off into the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival.

“The show started out with Willie Nelson on the first episode then expanded,” Henke said. “If you look at who’s appeared since then it’s been a nice mix of artists.”

Henke pointed out recent episodes with Ben Harper sitting in with Pearl Jam and Mos Def with K’Naan as examples of the show’s continued innovation.

“The producers don’t just book established artists. They’re looking at younger artists as well,” Henke said. “Our video reel has everyone from Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe to Damian Marley. It’s not just focused on one era or genre. I think this is not only what made the show so innovative, but has given it such longevity.”

For museum hours and ticket and general information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Rock Hall celebrates the 40th anniversary of Woodstock

(Below: The Polyphonic Spree party on Austin City Limits in 2004.)

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(Above: Jeff Tweedy goads the crowd then gives them a “Sonny Feeling.”)

By Joel Francis

Wilco had been onstage for nearly two hours Tuesday night when they headed back out for their second encore. Despite a long night and a chilly temperature somewhere in the 40s, they unloaded both barrels with the energetic one-two of “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”

For those few moments, the show touched the same stratosphere the band maintained throughout their for-the-ages performance almost two years ago to the day at Crossroads in 2007. The force and power bubbling under the surface for most of the night finally emerged and everyone – band and sold-out crowd alike – soaked it in.

The band announced its presence with “Wilco (The Song)” which found guitarist Nels Cline violently thrashing his guitar in front of his speaker to induce feedback. Although each song in the return engagement to Crossroads was solid, they all hit the same emotional plane without generating much drama. The main set was very, very good, but very reliable, without any peaks or valleys.

Wilco was at its best when it stretched out, as on “Bull Black Nova,” “Handshake Drugs” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” “At Least That’s What You Said,” opened gently on Pat Sansone’s piano before the harsh stomp of Jeff Tweedy’s guitar took over. The band inverted the loud-quiet-loud formula for “Misunderstood,” which thundered between verses before dropping back to Tweedy’s voice and guitar.

Because the band’s latest release, “Wilco (The Album),” is a summation record, the new material fit well alongside old favorites. Although it tipped toward the fresh, the setlist was democratic, ignoring the first album and drawing equally from the rest.

As the songwriter and frontman, Tweedy gets the spotlight, but the entire ensemble deserves credit. Bass player John Stirrat contributed gorgeous harmony vocals to several songs. Cline delivered several jaw-dropping solos, but the most amazing one came during “Impossible Germany,” where he made the guitar neck seem three times as long.

The evening’s secret weapon, though, was Sansone, who added an organ texture reminiscent of The Band’s Garth Hudson to “Kingpin” and seemed to chipping in a tasty guitar or keyboard line every time I looked his way.

There were a few pleasant surprises, like the “Summerteeth” nugget of joy “I’m Always in Love,” a loose and funky “Hoodoo Voodoo” that found Sansone and Cline trading guitar solos, and “Radio Cure,” which sounded like a voyage inside Tom Waits’ piano.

Always affable, Tweedy was in good spirits, suggesting the throng shouting requests elect a president and present their wishes in writing. After blowing his nose during “Hate It Here,” he pretended to toss the handkerchief into the audience.

Nearly two and a half hours after saying hello, Wilco closed out the night with a barnstorming version of “I’m A Wheel.” After teasing the embers they lit a sonic pyre on a cold night that will burn brightly until their next visit.

Setlist: Wilco (The Song); I Am Trying To Break Your Heart; Bull Black Nova; You Are My Face; One Wing; A Shot In The Arm; Radio Cure; Impossible Germany; At Least That’s What You Said; One By One; I’ll Fight; Handshake Drugs; Sonny Feeling; Hate It Here; Can’t Stand It; Jesus, Etc; Walken; I’m the Man Who Loves You. (Encore 1:) Misunderstood; I’m Always In Love; You Never Know (with Liam Finn); California Stars (with Liam Finn, Eliza Jane Barnes). (Encore 2:) Kingpin; The Late Great; Monday > Outtasite (Outta Mind) > Hoodoo Voodoo; I’m A Wheel.

Keep reading:

Wilco Wows at Crossroads (2007)

Review: Wilco at Wakarusa (2005)

Jay Bennett, Always In Love

(below: Jeff Tweedy at Crossroads, Oct. 6, 2009.)

tweedy

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wakarusa_05_c.sized

By Joel Francis

This weekend marks the first time Wakarusa will not be held at Clinton Lake near Lawrence, Kan. After establishing itself as a second-tier destination festival in 2004, Wakarusa has moved to Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Ark.

The Daily Record covered the previous four incarnations of Wakarusa. Join us now in a look back at the festival.

2005 – Wakarusa grows in its second year, offering what may be its greatest lineup to date, including Son Volt, Wilco, Neko Case, Calexico, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, String Cheese Incident and a then-unknown Matisyahu. Promoters are rewarded with a turnout of about 15,000 fans each day, doubling the inaugural turnout. Read more Wakarusa 2005 festival coverage.

2006 – The third annual Wakarusa Music Festival gets off to a sour start when music fans are greeted with highway patrol drug checks near Clinton Lake. “Narcarusa” is further sullied when it is revealed police strategically placed infrared cameras around the festival grounds to catch drug activity. Despite these setbacks, the festival once again reaches its 15,000-fan daily capacity and features the Flaming Lips, Les Claypool, P-Funk sideman Bernie Worrell, Gov’t Mule, Robert Randolph and the Family Band and back-to-back sets by Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Read more Wakarusa 2006 festival coverage.

2007 – Security is toned-down, but Mother Nature rages with hard winds on Friday and Sunday rain during the fourth Wakarusa. Crowds are down to 12,000 fans each day, which might be a reflection of the festival’s most mediocre lineup. Michael Franti and Spearhead close out the festival and the lineup also includes Be Good Tanyas, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Widespread Panic and Ben Harper. Read more Wakarusa 2007 festival coverage.

2008 – Heavy rains capsize Wakarusa’s final festival to date at Clinton Lake. The downpour ends Friday’s sets prematurely and the swamp left inside most concert tents force fans to abandon shoes at the perimeter or in the muck. Further disappointment hits when Bettye LaVette, Dweezil Zappa and Emmylou Harris cancel performances. An return engagement with the Flaming Lips in addition to sets by Old 97s, Ben Folds, Alejandro Escovedo, members of the Meters, Ozomatli and a Friday afternoon infusion of hip hop from Blackalicious and Arrested Development still leave fans with plenty to love. Read more Wakarusa 2008 festival coverage.

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(Above: Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy perform the unreleased Wilco song “Cars Can’t Escape.”)

By Joel Francis

When I first heard Jay Bennett had been fired from Wilco back in 2001, I was worried the band had just lost their secret weapon. Jeff Tweedy may have been the wordsmith and idea man, but Bennett was the artist who polished those ideas to perfection.

Bennett died in his sleep May 24. He was 45 years old.

Bennett’s presence was felt from the moment he joined Wilco in 1995. Tweedy was still trying to crawl out from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and establish his identity independent of his Tupelo cohort (and rival) Jay Farrar. Bennett’s presence on the band’s second album, “Being There,” added a new dimension to the arrangements and production.

“Summerteeth” is arguable Wilco’s finest hour and definitely the perfect product of the Tweedy/Bennett vision. For each of Tweedy’s dark moments, like “She’s A Jar” or “Via Chicago,” there are the sun-drenched pop anthems of “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” and “I’m Always in Love.” Wilco’s music has never been happier and more optimistic than it is on “Summerteeth.” For proof, check out the opening riff in the title song. “Summerteeth” the song is the musical equivalent of a gentle breeze caressing the backyard hammock, or those Corona beach commercials.

Bookending the recording of “Summerteeth” are two albums using unused Woody Guthrie lyrics recorded with British folker Billy Bragg. Bennett’s touch is felt across both volumes of the “Mermaid Avenue” material; “Secrets of the Sea” and “Hoodoo Voodoo” continue that “Summerteeth” vibe.

Wilco’s next album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” famously found the band in transition and butting heads. But if “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” point to the band’s future without Bennett, “Jesus, etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” still held plenty of Bennett’s sunny, radio-friendly magic.

Although Tweedy continued building critical acclaim and growing his fan base after “Foxtrot,” Bennett was not as successful on his own. That Bennett was working as a VCR repairman prior to joining Wilco says a lot about his craft. Bennett was a tinkerer, one who was best improving and polishing other’s creations. Left to both build and execute, he struggled.

Despite this, Bennett’s four solo albums still have merit. His first post-Wilco release, a collaboration with Edward Burch called “The Palace at 4 a.m.,” has a remake of the “Summerteeth” track “My Darling” that may top the original. This album and the two that follow it have more unused Guthrie material which makes for a nice “Mermaid Avenue” post script. (The post script continued this year with Wilco’s release of Guthrie’s “Jolly Banker.” Hopefully a “Volume Three” will appear sometime.) Bennett’s limited singing ability can grows wearisome across these releases, his production never does.

Bennett’s most complete solo statement was his second-to-last album, 2006’s “The Magnificent Defeat.” The second word in the title should be given more emphasis than the third. Bennett’s lyrics and delivery have a bit of Elvis Costello anger to them, but the fun he had putting the album together jumps out the speakers and makes for an infectious listen.

Today, Tweedy and bass player John Stirratt are all that remain of the Wilco lineup that brought us “Summerteeth” and “Being There.” But every time the band launches into “She’s A Jar” or “ELT” – as they frequently do – a little bit of Jay Bennett will be smiling on the audience. And they’ll be smiling back.

Keep reading:

Wilco Wows At Crossroads KC

Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)

Holiday Marketing Can Reveal Bands’ Inner Grinch

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