Poster art by Kii Arens.
Jonathan Wilson and his band played an extraordinary set at Largo in Los Angeles last night. Well, actually it was two extraordinary sets, with an intermission between them. And with a five piece string section in addition to his five member band. There were a lot of people (and guitars) on Largo’s cramped stage Friday night and the intimate theater was packed with pretty rabid JW fans, not casual attendees.
Personally, I was psyched. I’d been looking forward to the show all day.
I’ve seen Jonathan Wilson play four times in the past year and each show has been radically different. At a gig during SXSW, it was like watching Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the top of their game at the Fillmore (I was so into it that I got really drunk, something I never do). At a Venice beach dive bar warm-up gig to break in a new player prior to touring Europe with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, there was a loose, improvisational “jam band” feel to the proceedings. In Pomona earlier this month, opening for Tame Impala, Wilson and his group did a full on moody, brooding “his brain is squirming like a toad” psych-rock set complete with some of the most blistering guitar soloing I’ve heard in years.
Last night, though, was completely different. Throughout most of the relaxed, at-home-among-friends set, Wilson and everyone else remained seated, save for the bass player who seemed so into it that sitting down probably would have caused him physical discomfort. One consistent element in Wilson’s remarkably varied live shows is the palpable level of psychic communication and improvisational interplay that goes on among the band members. These motherfuckers are simultaneously deeply concentrating as well as losing themselves in what they are communally creating. There’s an ecstatic music being made and it was obvious from the band and the string section’s facial expressions that they were all deeply feeling it.
The perspective from the audience? It was like having gold poured into your ears.
I expected a really great show. It was one.
The sonic palette that Wilson and his band draws from includes Pink Floyd, CSNY, Radiohead, Bob Seger, Dire Straits, The Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Shuggie Otis and so forth, and yes, the musicianship is at that exalted level, too. What he does with these influences, making music which although “familiar” and surely “authentic” sounding—not only does Wilson record to analog tape, he makes his own guitars—is never derivative.
And this brings me to what pisses me off. Although Jonathan Wilson is a critical darling and has seen his music warmly received in Europe, especially in Great Britain where MOJO, Uncut and the BBC all ranked his Gentle Spirit album in their year end “Best of” short lists for 2011 just weeks after its release—he was even Uncut’s New Artist of the Year—he is STILL underrated in America to the point of being woefully under-appreciated.
Seriously America! WTF?
But why hasn’t Guitar Player magazine, for instance, heard of Jonathan Wilson? I know they have to put Jimi Hendrix or Keith Richards—one’s dead, the other can barely still play—on every cover to move magazines, but the editors appear to be blissfully unaware of one of the finest American musicians of his generation. How can this be? Wilson’s a “guitar hero” on the level of David Gilmour or Stephen Stills. He’s the real deal. He even used to MAKE (highly collectible) guitars. A search of their website brought up zero results for Jonathan Wilson.
During a shit-hot performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel” in Pomona that turned into an electrifying extended jam, one of my friends leaned over and said “He’s got to be the best guitarist in America right now” I think so, too (and his six-string lieutenant Omar Velasco is no slouch, either). Where’s Guitar Player’s love for Jonathan Wilson? Non-existent! They should send him flowers when they realize who they’ve been passively dissing (Note to Guitar Player’s editors: In ten years Jonathan Wilson is going to be one of your perennial cover boys, just like Keef and Jimi are today. You heard it here first, okay? You’re welcome!)
And is Rolling Stone giving Wilson the attention he deserves beyond mentioning him in passing or in connection with the rock elders like Graham Nash, Bob Weir, Jacksone Brown and Elvis Costello who want Jonathan’s magic to rub off on them? Nope. (Note to Jann Wenner…)
And neither is Pitchfork, who didn’t even bother reviewing Gentle Spirit. I guess you can be Uncut’s Best New Artist of 2011, but that doesn’t mean jack shit in America? When I wrote “If you haven’t heard of Jonathan Wilson yet, you will,” in January of 2012, I didn’t think I’d be writing practically the same damned thing a year and a half later. You’d have to go back as far as Sparks to name another so quintessentially American act so acclaimed in England and yet so obscure at home.
Weirdly, the same mainstream media outlets that go nuts for acts Wilson has produced and recorded (Dawes, Father John Misty) don’t bother covering him. In many ways, he’s currently the sun of a certain sort of Southern California classic rock revival’s universe (centered around his Five Star Studios and all star hootenanny jam sessions) although you’d never know it. Even normally pretty on top of it local publications like the LA WEEKLY and the Los Angeles Times have barely covered Wilson’s musical orbit, which is at least as important as the Stone’s Throw, Brainfeeder, Low End Theory and Odd Future scenes are.
The point of my rant here, is that there is this new guy in town, except he’s been here for a while now and he’s the real fucking deal. Old fucks always want to complain that music isn’t as good as it used to be, and even if I tend to agree with that myself, when something amazing and instantly canonical comes along, it needs to be championed and shared. It used to be that we had the likes of Lester Bangs to hip us to good music, but when the filters fail, we need to help each other find the gems in a world of dross.
Every single friend of mine who I have pestered to listen to Jonathan Wilson, 100% of ‘em, have become huge fans. I put it to you, Dangerous Minds reader, that you, too, might want to give Gentle Spirit a spin (especially if you’re into Father John Misty’s excellent Fear Fun album, which has Wilson all over it). And if you like it, and I think you will, you’ll be telling your friends about the music of Jonathan Wilson, too.
Wilson and his band leave next week for a gig supporting Neil Young and the summer Euro festivals. His new album will be coming out in the fall and he’ll probably be playing live around the country in support. Don’t pass up a chance to see him live.
Above, while this live version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel” is much different from the extended workout the song got in Pomona (as described above) but it’s close enough to get the point across.
Yahoo music posted this superb concert shot in August of 2012 at Bob Weir‘s TRI Studios in Marin County, California during “Move Me Brightly,” a tribute to Jerry Garcia in honor of what would have been his 70th birthday.
A recently taped US Social Club Session, live on KEXP in Seattle. The camerawork and audio quality here is pretty good for one of these sorts of sessions, I must say.