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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.)

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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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mbp
By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

The Mongol Beach Party reunion was already booked when Mark Southerland found out about it.

“I think what happened was (drummer) Bill (Belzer) booked the show, called (guitarist) Jeff (Freeling), and everyone else found out through third parties,” said Southerland, who plays saxophone in the band.

Although the idea had been floated casually in conversation before, this time no one said no. Seventeen years apart seemed like the right time to hook back up.

“When we started this band, none of us had been in bands before,” singer Christian Hankel said. “Now we’ve spent our lives since then in bands and music.”

Today Hankel and trombonist Kyle Dahlquist are part of Alacartoona; Belzer is in the New Amsterdams with Get Up Kid Matt Pryor; and Southerland is involved in several projects, including the Malachy Papers and Snuff Jazz. Bass player Scott Easterday fronts the reconvened Expassionates; and Freeling, the lone Mongol based outside of Kansas City, plays guitar with Chicago’s Blue Man Group.

“The fact that we’ve all continued on as musicians and none of us have set down our instruments has helped us reapproach the Mongol songs again,” Freeling said. “It’s not as if we’re reliving our glory days.”

Fans who show up at the RecordBar Friday and Saturday are guaranteed the same good-time, quirky dance-rock songs they heard nearly 20 years ago at the Shadow, Harling’s Upstairs and the Hurricane.

“I get the big sense that this isn’t just our reunion,” Hankel said. “People are using us as a way of getting together with their circle of friends from that time.”

Kansas City in the late ’80s was a different scene. There were fewer places to play, fewer outlets for exposure and fewer bands.

“Back then if you wanted to be known it was expensive and difficult,” Hankel said. “You couldn’t set up a MySpace page or Web site because those didn’t exist. You could make a CD, but that was worthless unless you could get somebody to play it.”

Instead the Mongols took whatever gigs they could get, even when it meant they were packaged with completely different bands like the Sin City Disciples.

“Bands were country or blues or whatever and had their own music scene that would go with them,” Easterday said. “We were different because we cut across the sub-scenes.”

Record producer Tom Mardikes was introduced to Mongols by his aerobics instructor, Freeling’s mother.

“Tom believed in a ‘Kansas City sound’ unique to our town,” Hankel said. “He took us to City Spark Studios, offered us unfettered access to the studio to record a full CD and promotion to college radio.”

“Toast,” the Mongols’ only album, was recorded in 1991. Long out of print, it was remastered and reissued this month.

“We included a few new additions to this version,” Easterday said. “There are our three demos cut at City Spark and a couple songs from a limited-edition cassette we made.”

Mongol Beach Party formed out of the Rockhurst High School friendships of Belzer, Freeling and Hankel and the musical partnerships forged at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After five years of living together in a house at 43rd and Harrison, and a single-minded focus on the band, the group unraveled when Belzer joined Uncle Tupelo.

“Jeff Tweedy would come drunkenly into Cicero’s (a St. Louis club the Mongols sometimes played),” Belzer said. “I loved his band, and when I was talking to him one time the idea came up for me to tour Europe with them.”

Belzer couldn’t be blamed for taking advantage of the opportunity to play for bigger crowds and share the bill with Bob Mould, Michelle Shocked and bluesman Taj Mahal. He wasn’t the only Mongol looking to expand his horizons.

“Bill did not break up the band,” Hankel said. “Because we were so close emotionally, but starting to branch out artistically, there was enormous pressure within the group. Side projects were not part of the culture at that time.”

Today the only musical trend hipper than a side project is a full-blown reunion.

“I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to the rehearsals more than the shows,” Hankel said last week. “Jeff and I were best friends before Mongol Beach Party, and we lost touch for a long time. I’m excited about reconnecting with these guys.”


mongol farewells
The Mongol Beach Party shows are Friday and Saturday at the RecordBar. The Friday show starts at 9 p.m. with opening act the Afterparty. The Saturday show starts at 9 p.m. with the Last Call Girls. Tickets for either show cost $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the RecordBar or through groovetickets.com.

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