Spotlight: Wilco

August 19, 2009 by Derrick Faw · 2 Comments
Filed under: Music 

uncletupelo1Once upon a time in the American Midwest there existed a band. They didn’t seem like anything that came before and captured the hearts of fans hungry for an alternative to downward spiral of the music industry. They and called themselves Uncle Tupelo. Named from a drawing of Elvis by a friend, from randomly picked words in the dictionary. The roots of the band were as varied and sporadic as the sound they produced. In their music folk and country are shamelessly intertwined with rock and punk. Though band members might humbly dispute the claim, they have been credited as being the founders of alternative country. Jason Ankeny of allmusic wrote,

“With the release of their 1990 debut LP, No Depression, the Belleville, IL, trio Uncle Tupelo launched more than simply their own career — by fusing the simplicity and honesty of country music with the bracing fury of punk, they kick-started a revolution which reverberated throughout the American underground. Thanks to a successful online site and subsequent fanzine which adopted the album’s name, the tag “No Depression” became a catch-all for the like-minded artists who, along with Tupelo, signaled alternative rock’s return to its country roots — at much the same time, ironically enough, that Nashville was itself embracing the slick gloss associated with mainstream rock and pop.”

Uncle Tupelo (Feb 1994 by Dean Taormina)

The original lineup consisted of Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Michael Heidorn. The band would be managed by Tony Margherita, who met Jeff when he worked in a record store in St. Louis. Between 1987 and 1994 the band would embed itself in music history, though without knowing commercial success. Four albums were recorded: No Depression (1990), Still Feel Gone (1991), March 16-20 (1992), and Anodyne (1993). 89/93: An Anthology was released in 2002 as a retrospective of the band’s work. As the Band grew, so did that of the alternative rock scene. Rather than being associated with the MTV frenzy and commercialization of ‘anti-commercialization’, they dug deeper into the roots of country and folk. The band would grow in members as well. Future members would include Bill Belzer who replaced Heidorn, who was then replaced by Ken Coomer. Max Johnston and John Stirratt would also being added to the band, giving them a much richer musical range. With their increasing artistic developments, so did come tensions between Farrar and Tweedy. Eventually Farrar would leave the band and form Son Volt. Jeff Tweedy would take the remaining members to form Wilco with Margherita as manager..

Wilco “I will comply” in CB jargon, would release their first album A.M. in 1995. The album featured Brian Henneman on guitar, a long time friend and collaborator with Uncle Tupelo. Though the album didn’t receive commercial success or many favorable reviews, I always felt it was underrated and an essential step of closure in Tweedy’s breakaway from being labeled. With labels come limitations, through the years Wilco has proved itself to be above categorization. When you think of Wilco, you have to think of Tweedy. He is the heart, soul and leading visionary. Their evolution as a band is like any true artist, growing and experimenting through the years. Rather it be in the style of Boy Dylan or Pablo Picasso, Tweedy is reaching out to expression.

Wilco

After A.M. would come multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, Bob Egan, and the departure of Johnston. As a guitarist and keyboardist, Bennett brought a new dimension to the sound Wilco was trying to create. The next album, Being There (1996) showed the most significant step in Wilco’s development. The album began to stray from the Uncle Tupelo sound with a harder edge and experimental dive, both musically and lyrically. Another important aspect is that Tweedy convinced Reprise Records to sell the double album set at a single album price. In so doing, the band lost their share of royalties. Though this decision might seem foolish to the business minded, it was a beginning of a special relationship with their fan base. In later years similar actions would fortify them as a band of destiny.

Wilco now had credibility and a life of its own outside of Uncle Tupelo. The next album to be released would be Mermaid Avenue (1998), collection of unknown Woody Guthrie lyrics. The album was a collaboration with Billy Bragg. Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, requested that Bragg put the songs to music. Bragg, being a fan of Wilco, convinced them to participate in the project. The album is a milestone in music history, putting Woody Guthrie in perspective to a whole new generation. The story of this collaboration is documented in Kim Hopkins film Man In The Sand (1999). After Mermaid Avenue Egan would be replaced by Leroy Bach. Simultaneously, Wilco was working on their third album. Summer Teeth (1999) would produce yet a whole new sound, strong and depressing lyrics and rich in overdubbing. After completion would come the second installment to the Woody Guthrie Project Mermaid Avenue Vol II.

During this time Tweedy was also branching out to other collaborations. By this time, Tweedy’s song writing prowess had risen to a level beyond that of the ordinary. I first heard him on the Golden Smog album Down By The Old Mainstream (1996), which lead me to Wilco. He then appeared on the following album Weird Tales (1998). He would join again with Golden Smog in 2005 on Another Fine Day. Tweedy would also do the soundtrack for Ethan Hawke’s 2001 film Chelsea Walls. After another collaboration, with Jim O’Rourke in 2000, the direction of Wilco would change once again. O’Rourke introduced drummer Glenn Kotche to Tweedy. An immediate friendship and compatibility emerged. The trio performed as Loose Fur, with the self titled album Loose Fur (2003) and then Born Again In The USA (2006).

Wilco

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) would be the album that put Wilco over the top. Kotche was brought into the band on drums, replacing Coomer. During production, tensions in the band began to grow with Bennett and Tweedy’s artistic vision for the band. Bennett would then be fired after the album was completed. When the album was finished came what what could have been devastating blow to the band. Reprise records dropped the album and the band. Fortunately Wilco was able to leave with a finished album in hand. This produced an incredible freedom in how the Band could enter the next stage of its development. Remarkably this whole incident was captured for prosperity in Sam Jones Documentry I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2003).



During the time between labels, Wilco made a bold move. During a time when online downloading of music was soaring, the music industry was in panic mode. Rather by legal action or other, they were gunning down music lovers. Artist like Metallica battled Napster, bringing down a community of 26.4 million users. Wilco took a different approach. Fans were eagerly awaiting the new album, that was now in delay, the band took the decision to stream it from their website for free. The fans loved them for it. When Wilco finally signed with Nonesuch Records, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became the band’s best selling album. Ironically enough, Reprise and Nonesuch are both subsidiaries of Warner Brothers. So basically in the end, Warner Brothers bought the album twice. Before the release of the album Wilco would collaborate with Scott McCaughey on the Minus 5′s Down with Wilco (2003).

The following album, A Ghost Is Born (2004), once again experimented and explored musical possibilities. The songs were created first with Pro Tools, before being performed live. Again the album would be streamed free online before the actual release. Bach would leave the band to pursue other interest, making way for the current lineup. Jeff Tweedy (lead singer, guitar), John Stirratt (bass), and Glenn Kotche (percussion) were joined by Mikael Jorgensen (Piano), Nels Cline (Guitar), and Pat Sansone (multi-instrumental). The new lineup debuted with the album Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (2005). Ever since the beginning days of Wilco, Tweedy would embark on solo tours with acoustic guitar and harmonica in hand. In 2006 the film Jeff Tweedy – Sunken Treasure – Live in the Pacific Northwest was released. It displays the special nature of his solo performances, which put the music of Wilco into a whole different light.



The next album Sky Blue Sky (2007) would show a whole new collaboration and arrangement of the members talents. Yet again Wilco streamed the album prior to release and even offered a free MP3 download with the song What Light. The album sold an amazing 87,000 copies in the first week alone. The latest installment in the Wilco catalog is Wilco (The Album) (2009), again streamed from their website prior to release. The album has already produced their first #1 spot in the charts with the single You Never Know.

Wilco

To date Wilco has won 2 Grammy awards and 2 nominations. Mermaid Avenue was nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album. A Ghost is Born won Best Alternative Music Album and Best Recording Package. Sky Blue Sky was nominated for Best Rock Album. Their success is nothing less than hard work and commitment to artistic expression mixed with a rare relationship with their fan base. I was lucky enough to meet the current lineup and attend the sound check during a show here in Paris a few years ago. Despite their fame and success, they are very approachable and generous. The true highlight of Wilco as a band is seeing them live. The unique manner in which Tweedy and the crowd interact is reminiscent of smokey bar room nights like those in Saint Louis when Uncle Tupelo plowed the grounds of musical development. Check out the official Wilco website wilcoworld.net for more information on the band and to listen to their albums.





Books relating to Wilco



First time on World Wide Angle, you may want to subscribe to our RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

Spotlight: The Band – The Last Waltz

December 10, 2008 by Derrick Faw · 7 Comments
Filed under: Cinephile, Music 

“This film should be played loud!”

It is beautiful, it is inspirational, it is exhilarating, all these things in the face of a solemn occasion. It is The Band’s The Last Waltz filmed by Martin Scorsese. Mostly consisting of concert footage from The Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976. Bill Graham hosted this event at his Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, which happened to be the first place The Band ever played under the name “The Band”. It was a kind of “by the skin of your teeth” experiment, not only in filmmaking but also musically. Scorsese is well know as fanatical movie buff, but he is a great lover of music as well. Just listen to most any soundtrack from his films. Being an admirer of The Band, the collaboration produced a special magic never yet matched. The Band by the way consist of a misplaced Southerner and 4 Canadians. They are Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. They began as the backup group for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan on his legendary 1966 world tour, where he unleashed his brand of rock and roll to unexpecting folk fans, Then they where known to the world as The Hawks. After so much press of this tour would only refer to them in comments like Bob Dylan and “the band”, the name stuck and they became The Band. They would continue to collaborate with Dylan off and on throughout their existence. No other group was ever able to capture all the roots, history, and atmosphere of America and put them together so genuinely.

Levon Helm

Levon Helm

Rick Danko

Rick Danko

Richard Manuel

Richard Manuel

Garth Hudson

Garth Hudson

Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Robertson

Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Robertson

The audience really had no idea what they were in for that night just there may be some special guest. The event started at 5:00 pm, a crowd of 5000 people were served turkey dinners followed by ballroom dancing with music performed by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. Then after reading of poetry The Band hit the stage at 9:00 pm and the music went on until the the early hours of the morning. All the members of the band were at the top of their game and their guest were sensational. Throughout the concert the audience was continually treated with a barrage of musical talent playing with The Band. Including: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Stephan Stills, Bobby Charles, Bob Margolin, and Joe “Pinetop” Perkins. Each guest had a reason for being there. Invited by The Band as a whole or from individual members, they all represent elements of American music.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

Neil Young

Neil Young

Robertson had one choice in mind for the film, he wanted Martin Scorsese. Through a mutual friend, Jonathan Taplin, they would meet and form a lasting bond. Taplin had been the road manager for Bob Dylan and The Band and later went on to produce the film Mean Streets. Marty was no stranger to filming music either. He was the first assistant director and principle editor of the film Woodstock. Scorsese’s was already busy in the process of filming at the time. The film New York, New York was over budget and behind schedule. Scorsese was under contract making it virtually impossible to shoot another film, especially on the other side of the country. It came as you could say a labor of love, something that he simply could not refuse. In the process he did something that had never been done before. Winterland was converted into a set and the footage was filmed on 35mm. With an elaborate plan of lighting and camera positions the concert was converted into a theatrical performance. The stage was even decorated with 3 crystal chandeliers said to have been used in Gone With The Wind. The set was borrowed from the San Francisco Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. In all 7 cameras were used by some of the most noted cinematographers. Scorsese went to great lengths to create a 200 page musical script. The whole concert was set to a storyboard complete with illustrations. Taking the lyrics of the songs to be played and matching them with camera angles and movements and with lighting effects. As could be expected with a live performance, the crew had to keep on their feet. Due to the length of a role of film and fatigue of the camera men, not all of the concert could be caught on film. Scorsese used a headphone system to communicate with his cameramen. Giving them valuable detail of what shots and movements he wanted at the precise time. Though due to his “heated stream of instructions” veteran cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs became annoyed and removed his headset early in the show. By a simple twist of fate, what turned out to be one of the greatest moments of the whole show was rescued by this revolt. While all the other cameras were taking time to reload, Muddy Waters was giving a phenomenal performance of Mannish Boy. Kovacs’s camera caught skillfully captured this moving event. His footage was used up until the very last seconds of the song, by that time the others had scrambled their rigs back in working order. The famed David Myers was another key cameraman in the filming lineup. Robertson had his guitar bronzed for the event. Later on it was offered to Scorsese as a gift, and now resides in the Cappa Office in Manhattan.

The Staples

The Staples

Martin Scorsese and Rick Danko

Martin Scorsese and Rick Danko

Martin Scorsese's Notes

Martin Scorsese

The film also featured amazing studio takes of The Weight performed with the Staples (Roebuck “Pops”, Mavis, Yvonne, and Cleotha Staples), Evangeline with Emmylou Harris, and also The Band performing The Last Waltz Theme. To add to the music, interview segments were made at a point after the concert at The Band’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu. It was an old bordello converted into their office, work, and play area. The interviews give the film a whole new dimension, giving a glimpse of who these people are and where they came from. Somewhat filled with melancholy, it showed the reminiscence and reflection of what they had just been through the last 16 years as a group. The Last Waltz is like a snapshot, a night frozen in time, of what became of the 60′s and what the 70′s were about. For Scorsese fits in with his other films of the time making a series of documentaries about America. This trilogy consist of Italianamerican, American Boy: A Profile of: Steven Prince, and of course The Last Waltz. Technically speaking the film is virtually flawless, a great accomplishment for filming a live event. I invite any of you to check out this film or soundtrack, and if you are familiar with it, check it out again, it never gets old. Special thanks to Samantha for teaching me a lot about this wonderful moment in the history of music.

A Different Kind of Musical

December 8, 2008 by Derrick Faw · 2 Comments
Filed under: Cinephile, Music 

When film and music come together, the collaboration can be magical. I’m not referring to soundtracks or films from the musical genre. They can be in the form of a movie, documentary, or even concert footage. Of course rather or not the film appeals to you ultimately depends on your own personal taste in music. Music was my first love and has always been my companion. Only after meeting Samantha did my appreciation for film start to grow, and I am happy to have introduced her to my world of music. I appreciate most types and styles, but always my true love remains traditional, folk, and country. Being from the Blue Ridge mountains, I was blessed with growing up in an area rich in musical tradition. It is a unique place truly, you could have someone as great as Wayne Henderson for your mail carrier or see Doc Watson play on a Friday morning at Minton’s Pawn Shop. I often joke that Samantha is the only French woman that loves country music, though I have heard rumors of a few others.

James Stewart as Glenn Miller

James Stewart as Glenn Miller

Even in the days of silent movies, music played an important role in movies. Many films released included sheet music for performers at the theater. This helped set the mood for the viewing audience. With the arrival of “talkies”, more control was given to the filmmaker of how music could be used. Actually the first “talkie” was The Jazz Singer by Alan Crosland, it is the story of a man’s quest to become a jazz singer. Through the years, more and more films appeared that were about music and musicians. Occasionally they would even feature artist, such as St. Louis Blues with Bessie Smith by Dudley Murphy. Films would also begin to tell the life story of popular artist like The Glenn Miller Story by Anthony Mann. Gradually the musical became a big sensation, and reached its climax in the 50′s. We even saw the singing cowboys hit the screen with a different twist on the Western. In 1956, Elvis Presley jumped from radio sensation to the big screen. He would go on to act and sing in a long string of feature films, up until the end of the 60′s. The 60′s brought us a whole new kind of film, documenting specific artist and musical events. It was the perfect time for film and music to blend as they were both in the process of change, as was culture as a whole. In the mid 60′s the Fab Four would bring Beatlemania to cinema. None of the Beatles movies can particularly be considered to be great films. They are mostly second rate comedies used as a vehicle to their music. The film Let it be by Michael Lindsay-Hogg on the other hand takes a different approach, being in the form of a documentary. Meant to be a film about the making of the album of the same name, it captures the beginning of their end as a group. Many consider though the films of the Beatles to be the beginnings of what we now know as the music video.

DA Pennebaker Filming Bob Dylan

DA Pennebaker Filming Bob Dylan for Eat The Document

D.A. Pennebaker, armed with his hand held camera and stovepipe hat would help forge the way in Direct Cinema. Direct Cinema deals with attempting to truthfully document events and persons. His film Don’t Look Back was a major breakthrough in the power of cinema to tap into music. In this film we follow along with Bob Dylan on his 1965 UK tour. It documents antics with the press, private jam sessions, and stage performances during this legendary tour. Pennebaker would go on to film Dylan again in Eat The Document and then the Monterey Pop Festival 1967, which documented not only the music itself but the atmosphere of the crowd. Next would come Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, which documents what could be noted as the most important and influential concerts in history.

Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in Alice's Restaurant

Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in Alice's Restaurant

In subsequent years many great films would be produced about live performances, documentaries, and about the life of musical icons. Some would even be inspired fictionalize the documentary like in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. Artist would also have their songs developed into films, such as Arlo Guthrie acting out his Alice’s Restaurant by Arthur Penn or even Kenny Rogers as The Gambler. Many more films have been made about the lives of musical icons, to name a few: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Richie Valens, The Doors, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams Jr., and the loosely fitting portrait of Bob Dylan I’m Not There. Concerts with a documentary feel have also lodged themselves in cinema beyond Monterey and Woodstock with films like: The Last Waltz, The Song Remains The Same, The Grateful Dead, Rust Never Sleeps, Year Of The Horse, Gimme Shelter, and Martin Scorsese’s IMAX splendor Shine A Light. The Rock Band The Who would open a whole new door in the Musical with Tommy. Pink Floyd would bring to life an entire album in Pink Floyd The Wall. Some very great documentaries have also appeared in recent years like Ken Burns in depth look into Jazz, Martin Scorsese’s personal look into Bob Dylan in No Direction Home, Sam Jone’s extraordinary film covering Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot dilemma I’m Trying To Break Your Heart, Another honorable mention is the Classic Album series which documents the making of some of the most influential albums.

Pink Floyd The Wall

Pink Floyd The Wall

This is the first part of a series I am excited to write about as music is very dear to me. There are a few films dealing with music that stand out in my mind as the greatest ever and deserve further discussion. In future post I will be writing in more detail about such films as The Last Waltz, Don’t Look Back, Masked and Anonymous, I’m Trying To Break Your Heart, and Pink Floyd The Wall. There are many more films not mentioned in this post, the subject would take an entire book to document. Feel free to comment on any of your favorites or any opinions you may have on the subject.