For a band that counts Bread amongst its influences, The Autumn Defense put on a very energetic show on March 22 at Higher Ground. The band’s songs, quiet and atmospheric on disc, had a new life on stage, and better showcased the many talents of the musicians involved.
Two-fifths of The Autumn Defense’s touring band (and two halfs of the recording band), John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, make up one-third of the critically praised band Wilco.“There’s definitely is a little bit of that feeling like we’re working in the shadow of a bigger thing,” Sansone, who speaks with the slightest hint of a Missippi accent says. “Which is interesting because we’re part of that shadow, so it’s like we kind of in our own shadow in a way. It can be frustrating, but the main thing you gotta do is get out there and make the music and hope that people hear it for what it is."
The Higher Ground show came at the tail end of a cross country tour of small stages. At show time, the band had already driven 10,000 miles in two vans to bring their low key folk pop to those in the know. The crowd at Higher Ground, while on the smaller side, was still treated to an uplifting show.
“It’s been nice playing on these small stages for this music, because the music does have a very intimate atmosphere and an intimate feel,” Sansone says. “It’s good for us to be all crammed together so that we can really communicate with each other.”
The band opened with the lead track off its new self-titled album, "Canyon Arrow." Honestly, I didn’t like the song when I first heard it on the CD. I thought the bass lines were too jumpy and the song sounded dated (and from the 70s). Three bars into the live cut I had my mind changed. The vocals were all sung in harmony, which added a full, moody sound and a warmth to the song that I hadn’t noticed before. The bass, once jumpy, now anchored the song and provided the canvas for Stirratt and Sansone’s dissonant jazz guitar chords. It was the first of many examples of the onstage communication mentioned by Sansone.
A common theme of the concert was my learning how the simple sounds of The Autumn Defense discs belied the technical skill of the music. Many times I was surprised by how well Stirratt and Sansone, Wilco’s bassist and keyboardist/multi-instumentalist, respectively, played other instruments for The Autumn Defense, especially guitar. The chord progressions for each song were layered and developed, and managed to not fall into traditional pop ruts. The playing was solid and understated except for one ripping solo by Sansone, which closed out the set. Sansone and Stirratt's voices, relegated in Wilco to harmonies only, are choir-strong and only further demonstrate the great amount of musical skill they possess.
Stirratt's skills on guitar demonstrate his abilities to work outside of his "Wilco bassist" role.
(Photo, Mike Morris)
One song, "Written in the Snow," played midway through the set, went from a Sunday morning soundtrack kind of song that you might read the paper to, to a strong folk rock song. Offhand electric guitar fills from Sansone and a powerful vocal from Stirratt showcased the added value of seeing a live music show.
The next song, "Feel You Now," had Sansone take over the keyboards and hand off guitar duties to Mike Cruz, who had previously been playing the keys. The song, buoyed by a two-chord major rising run on the keys gave Sansone a chance to show off his vocal abilities. He sang like an old Motown soul singer, letting vibrato and glisses color the song in new ways. Performances like this make me want to see a more upfront vocal role for Sansone in Wilco.
Back to that ripping solo from Sansone I mentioned earlier (you can see pictures from it below). It came in the final song of the set, We Would Never Die, a folky number sung in AD trademark harmonies. The live version breathed more life into some of the quieter verses and showed the band at its organic best. The Sansone solos, jazzy and glistening on the album, became bluesy and raw on stage. And, oh yeah, they kicked ass too. As he played, the band kept up with him, upping the energy of the song as his musical thoughts increased in complexity. It was a fitting way to end the set. Cathartic comes to mind.
I had the chance to interview Sansone before the show and speak informally with Stirratt afterwards. Both are unassuming, having the sort of personalities you would expect them to have given the understated quality of the music. Stirratt actually introduced himself to me, as if I wasn’t already drooling over the prospect of meeting him.
Stirratt, after acknowledging the unfortunately small nature of The Autumn Defense shows, referred to the musical process of the band as a “labor of love.” He performs like he means it (the love more than the labor).
Sansone had similar things to say about the band.
“I can already tell I’ll probably have a day of rest after the tour and then I’ll totally miss it and wish I was back out on the road. It’s been really nice to be able to make this music every night.”
As for the motivation in the face of 10,000 mile van tours, Sansone shared Stirratt’s love as well.
“I enjoy the music, I really enjoy making it. I love to sing--singing is one of my favorite things to do in the world. It’s very important to me to be able to keep making music and keep singing. I think whenever you play and people do come out to the shows that genuinely love the music and seem to be genuinely touched by it, it gives you encouragement that you’re doing something right. Even if we’re not playing to huge crowds, like Wilco, we do get the feeling that it is reaching people.”