While they were still known as alt-country poster boys in the infancy of their career, Chicago’s Wilco faced the daunting task of following the legendary Johnny Cash at the 1996 College Music Journal Conference. It was a performance that demolished their preconceived reputation and nearly lost them their die-hard fans and record label in less than two hours. I would imagine that the pressure they felt that night is somewhat similar to what the children of mythologized songwriters feel when they embark on their own musical journey.
The listening public first saw this phenomenon in the form of Hank Williams, Jr and then later in Hank Williams III. With a father known for capturing the essence of early to mid 20th century country music, Jr. had a lot to “live up” to. While he proved himself well, he always had to deal with the comparisons to the man who came before him.
Bob Dylan has been the songwriter for musicians to namedrop for the last half century. Inspired by Woodie Guthrie, the folk icon influenced the next generation of rock stars too numerous to list here, though a short list would definitely include Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Jackson Browne. Some critics and music historians would argue that the Beatles would never have turned introspective with their lyrics without their friendship with Bob Dylan. John Lennon even acknowledged that “You Can’t Hide Your Love Away” drew heavy influence from Dylan. Dylan’s roller coaster career has spanned the years with dwindling record sales in the 80s and 90s, but a strong revival by the turn of the century. Despite cries of “Judas” multiple times for “abandoning” his folk roots, Bob Dylan will always be a songwriting hero for the current generations and the ones to come.
In 1989, Bob Dylan’s son, Jakob, formed one of the most talked-about groups of alternative rock, The Wallflowers. Their self-titled debut arrived on Virgin in 1992, selling a moderate 40,000 copies. They then went into the studio with the everyman record producer, T-Bone Burnett, for 1996’s monster hit, Bringing Down The Horse. I was eight years old at the time and I even knew the chorus to “One Headlight”. Also, you cannot go wrong with having Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers play slide guitar on a song. Four million records sold and a number two Billboard hit earned the band two Grammys at the 1998 ceremony. Some argue that this was the pinnacle of their success, but The Wallflowers powered through the next decade and a half, releasing Breach (2000), Red Letter Days (2002) and Rebel, Sweetheart (2005). After a seven year hiatus, the Wallflowers returned with last year’s Glad All Over.
Recently, the Wallflowers stopped by the Workplay Theatre. I went with glowing anticipation. To be honest, I still mainly knew “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache”, which I found thanks to my search to find anything related to Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. I had a copy of Bringing Down The Horse on my iPod and knew what the band was capable of, but I was not expecting the full brilliance of what occurred that night.
When I arrived at 7:30, the majority of the audience was still in the bar tossing back a few drinks. I used this to my advantage and got right to the front of the stage. First up, the Austin-based ensemble, My Jerusalem. They shattered my eardrums with their opening guitar riff and raucous energy. I was captivated despite the fact that I could not understand half of the lead singer’s growl. They had a punk edge with a classic rock chaser and an indie rock mindset. The crowd and I dug it. They hardly spoke in between songs aside from short snippets of insight (“This song is about kissing the wrong person at the wrong time” and “This one is about pain-in-the-ass siblings”), but the music spoke for itself. I worried the entire time that the drummer would only be left with twisted metal for a drum set by the end. The last song ended with the lead singer writhing and “dancing” in the middle of the crowd and the drummer stabbing his snare drum with both sticks. What a way to start the night.
Trapper Schoepp and the Shades entered the stage next with a four-piece band. Proud of their Milwaukee, Wisconsin roots, Schoepp and his band played alternative country-influenced garage rock, a potent mixture of Midwest heroes The Replacements and Uncle Tupelo and the ferocity of the Hives. Schoepp’s lead vocals and his brother bassist’s harmonies were impeccable, but the lead guitarist stole the show with visceral solos that left the audience begging for more. Here was one of the cases where you marvel at how good he is in his mid-twenties and wonder aloud what he will be like in 15 or 20 years. This band got a CD purchase out of me and I hope they return soon.
Finally, the moment we had all waited for was about to happen. The guitar and drum techs readied the stage for a little over twenty minutes, but we still had to wait another ten before the band took the stage. When Jakob Dylan came to his place near stage right, I noticed the wide-brim hat that made him look like a carbon copy of his father. He did not say a word, but strapped on his guitar and kicked off the set while the crowd pushed in to the point of claustrophobia.
“Captivating” is an understatement when describing what unfolded that night. The band’s flawless performances of their hits rendered us all momentarily speechless, although we made sure we sang along to every word. One fan managed to get right in front of Dylan and offered him a fist pump after every song. Dylan obliged with a rare smile and was incredibly good-natured and interactive with the crowd. He was so attuned to their response, he even stopped in the middle of his introduction to their biggest hit to acknowledge a patron in the “second row” that seemed to be only slightly enthused about the show. Dylan asked why he was here and the man pointed to his girlfriend in the front. Dylan paused and said, “Well, if I can smile, so can you.”
The band played the majority of the catalog, including most of the singles from Bringing Down The Horse. “6th Avenue Heartache” and “One Headlight” were performed almost one right after the other, to the crowd’s delight. One woman behind me managed to shout out her request for Glad All Over’s “Reboot The Mission” a total of 14 times during the show, but apparently was not loud enough for the band to hear or acknowledge, though I heard her loud and clear.
A three-song encore followed the 16-song set and the band introductions at the end revealed the identity of drummer Jack Irons, a Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Famer who was part of the original Red Hot Chili Peppers lineup as well as No Code and Yield-era Pearl Jam and was one of the highlights of the night for me.