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Music

Wilco brings diverse sound back to Missoula for concert

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Wilco is, from left, Pat Sansone, Mikael Jorgensen, Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche and John Stirratt.

The first time guitarist Nels Cline played live with venerable rock act Wilco, at a concert in Dekalb, Ill., he wasn’t surprised by the applause, necessarily. Only that it came before they’d played a single note.

“That freaked me out completely at first. It was really loud. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, we haven’t even played yet and they’re freaking out,’ ” he recalled. “I hope they don’t hate it.”

That wasn’t a problem eight years ago when the then-obscure experimental guitar virtuoso joined the band, and likely won’t be on Thursday, June 28, when the group returns to Missoula to play at Big Sky Brewery Co.’s summer concert series.

Cline, 56, is a veteran musician who’s logged decades and more than 100 recordings in the improv and jazz world, playing for smaller crowds before joining the Chicago sextet. His no-holds-barred experiments with wild effects and soloing have since earned him a place on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He spoke with the Missoulian earlier this month, when the band was already in the midst of its season-spanning Big Summer Tour.

The group has hit the road to promote “The Whole Love,” a typically diverse collection spanning mellow country, acoustic ballads and garage rock. The album was recorded at their Chicago studio, which allows bandleader and songwriter Jeff Tweedy and company “free rein” to tinker with different sounds.

Opener “The Art of Almost” is nearly three songs in one, a product of studio experimentation and Tweedy’s intuitive approach. It began as a calmer number, but ended up as “this sort of monstrous track,” Cline said. It kicks off with an almost Radiohead-like soundscape of crackling static and synth loops from keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen over a clipped beat from drummer Glenn Kotche before Tweedy emerges with the first verse.

And it’s miles from where it began. “That song was never originally going to be that way,” Cline said. “It was originally a kind of mid- to downtempo sort of almost like Fairport Convention groove. It just completely changed when Glenn played this little drum pattern before the end.” After a more conventional verse-chorus-verse pattern fades to an ending, the song reemerges with a noisy, aggressive beat and two-minute solo from Cline, who was egged on by Tweedy.

The sprawling, seven-minute track is a fitting introduction to the layers of instrumentation and overstuffed arrangements on the rest of the album. “This and ‘Wilco (The Album)’ have shared the sensibility of free-for-all overdubbing,” Cline said. “Basically, chart any idea and just record it. You know, the data could be retained. Later you could sift through and see what you like.”

Songs often toy with listeners’ expectations: The classic power-pop of “Dawned on Me” boasts cheerful harmonized vocals periodically interrupted with a long screech of feedback. The closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” however, maintains its loping pace for 12 minutes without much in the way of disruptive interludes.

“Sometimes we mess around with these songs a million different ways,” Cline said. “(Tweedy’s) really flexible, but when he wants to hear something he’ll say what he wants to hear. And sometimes it’s very unobvious. You know, he might just completely change his mind about where a song’s going and just turn the whole thing upside down just to see what will happen.”

***

That sense of improvisation and self-determination applies outside of the studio as well. Tweedy himself generates a varied lineup of songs for most every concert. “Ninety-nine percent of the time Jeff does the set list, and he spends a lot of time on them. And what goes into the set list is the knowledge that we’re going to play at least six to nine tracks from the new record,” Cline said. To avoid repetition, the band can consult a meticulous online archive to see what they played in a specific city on previous tours. The trove of information is available at wilcoworld.net, where fans can submit requests for the concert they’re attending, which Tweedy also takes into account.

That detailed, fan-friendly site is a result of the band starting its own label last year, dBpm Records, which features free, streaming concert recordings and a backlog of show posters available for purchase. “It’s hard to get a label that’s putting out a bunch of other records to pay that much attention to one band,” Cline said. “So at this point, I just don’t think anyone could do this kind of work except ourselves.”

Wilco is looking to expand their offerings in the future as well. “There’s going to be a lot more of this sort of thing, this sort of access to recordings of every show on tour, I think, or some kind of a tour book that will come out, these photography documentation things,” Cline said. “That’s one of the reasons dBpm exists is to make sure that there’s plenty there.”

Cline’s solo career has no shortage of offerings either. The condensed version includes appearances on Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s new album, “Between the Times and Tides”; an as-yet unreleased duo record with Thurston Moore, also of Sonic Youth; a new record with his jazz/improv group, the Nels Cline Singers; a project with his wife, keyboardist Yuka Honda; a jazz album with clarinetist Ben Goldberg of Tin Hat Trio and saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and more.

The attention from Wilco has raised the profile of his somewhat niche-oriented solo work. “It was kind of ramping up about the same time that I joined Wilco, although I wasn’t going to be able to make a living in the United States of America for sure, and I still can’t – maybe I could now,” Cline said. “It’s definitely made a difference when I go out on little tours with my band, the Nels Cline Singers, in terms of the number of people coming to shows. I think there a lot of nice, loyal and curious Wilco fans that would come. So it’s kind of doubled the audience.”

Cline said Wilco “does whatever the hell we want,” and judging from his list of solo projects, he seems likely to do the same.

Assistant news editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at cory.walsh@lee.net.

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