Cline brings his guitar and his greatness to Wilco

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Nels Cline was standing tall when he performed with Wilco at San Diego's Open Air Theatre last week. But for several previous concerts, this masterful guitar maverick not only played with Wilco while sitting on a chair, he wore slippers to boot.

"I got adult chicken pox, and it's been the worst physical challenge of my adult life," said Cline from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was convalescing at a friend's home before rejoining Wilco on the road.

"It looks like I'll have to play sitting down for a little while and wear slippers because I have these things (sores) on my feet. But I'm pretty sure I'll be able to rock my steel-toed boots by the time we get to San Diego. I've worn the same boots on stage every day since 1994 - Red Wings, baby!"



Cline, whose chicken pox led to the cancellation of one Wilco show and the postponement of another, was indeed wearing his boots at the band's San Diego concert. "When I play jazz gigs, I don't wear my steel-toes," he said. "But I can't rock without my boots. It's very psychological."

Regardless of his chosen footwear, Cline shines in almost any stylistic setting, as befits one of contemporary music's most versatile guitarists. He was invited to join Wilco three years ago by its leader, Jeff Tweedy, as the band prepared to tour behind its then-new album, "A Ghost Is Born."

This already accomplished band's music soon gained a rich new palette of textures, moods, and dynamics, thanks to Cline's ability to delicately shade a song just so one moment, then play a jaw-dropping solo the next. Accordingly, Cline is prominently featured on Wilco's superb new album, "Sky Blue Sky," which ranks as one of the finest of the year.

Tasteful, fluid and always impeccably executed, his playing enhances any song - or instrument - he's on. (In addition to all manner of electric and acoustic guitars, he also plays lap pedal steel, sitar, bass and Marxophone, which has the combined characteristics of a zither, mandolin, and guitar.)

On "You Are My Face," a standout song from "Sky Blue Sky," Cline sounds alternately graceful and edgy, but always perfectly in tune with the music's emotional essence. On "Please Be Patient With Me," he glides through and above an intricate array of lattice-like guitar lines, while the bluesy "Shake It Off" demonstrates just how well Cline can make a simple, unadorned instrumental part sing and shine.

"He's a phenomenal guitarist and an amazing person," said Tweedy, who has a knack for surrounding himself with gifted musicians.

Given his already impressive pedigree, joining Wilco didn't make Cline a better guitarist, although it certainly made Wilco a better band. But joining Wilco has made him a much-better-known guitarist, after spending the previous 25 years as an underground cult artist noted for his daring playing and composing.

As a result, the Los Angeles-based Cline now finds himself leading a double life, musically speaking. With Wilco, he has become increasingly high-profile - Rolling Stone recently named him one of its "Top 20 New Guitar Gods" (which would have been unlikely pre-Wilco). On his own, he remains an underground guitar hero who has worked with such top cutting-edge artists as fellow guitarist Henry Kaiser, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, saxophonist John Zorn and many other under-the-radar artists.

Unusually prolific, Cline has already played on albums by a dozen artists this year, including Wilco, M. Ward, and his own band, the all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers. Unusually eclectic, he also has played on albums by '60s psychedelic survivors Sky Saxon & the Seeds, Rickie Lee Jones, punk vocal avatar Lydia Lunch and percussionist Gregg Bendian (with whom Cline reinvented jazz sax giant John Coltrane's ear-bending 1967 album, "Interstellar Space"). And he's greatly elevated albums by such forward-thinking rockers as Mike Watt and Sonic Youth's Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore.

Between his recording debut in 1979 and last year, Cline performed on 106 albums, a tally that doesn't include his 22 solo releases or countless concerts with myriad artists. In almost every instance, he stands out as a strikingly original instrumental voice and sensitive collaborator.

"My role is always to come up with the right thing at the right time," said Cline, 51, who looks about 15 years younger than he is.

"Now I can contribute whatever I can to the Wilco sound and have these delightful concert experiences, and also enjoy the much more cushy standard of touring. I'm not getting any younger, so the old man is digging the Wilco tour bus! It's a lot easier than being in a van, which is what I use for my own gigs. And I can get pretty wild on stage with Wilco and get away with it. It really is the best of both worlds for me."

Cline spoke at length about how much he enjoys Wilco's music and the freedom he has been given to contribute to it. He also happily acknowledged the mutual admiration society between him and the band's other members (Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche guests on the new Nels Cline Singers album). And he praised fellow Wilco guitarists Tweedy and Pat Sansome.

"I'm always learning by sitting around listening to Jeff play guitar," Cline said. "I also learn lots of things about finger-picking from sitting with Jeff listening to albums by (pioneering blues guitarist-singer) Reverend Gary Davis."

After hearing him perform, some Wilco fans have sought out Cline's solo work (his CDs are on sale at the merchandise booths at Wilco concerts). But he laughingly acknowledges that most of his jazz and avant-garde musical collaborators have almost no knowledge of Wilco. Then again, until Tweedy asked him to join, neither did Cline.

"I was certainly surprised to get the call," Cline said. "Although I had opened for Wilco four years ago with Carla Bozulich's band, and I'd met Jeff in 1996, when I was in (alt-country band) Geraldine Fibbers and we opened for Golden Smog (a Tweedy side project).

"The Fibbers loved Jeff, and I think he liked the Fibbers. Carla and Jeff stayed in touch, even though I didn't know it. ... I only paid attention to Wilco when (the 2002 album) 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' came out. I had never listened to any of their other records - sorry, folks! - now I have."
As it transpired, having no preconceived notions about Wilco was a major advantage.

"That's one of the reasons Jeff thought I might be good for the band," Cline agreed. "He wasn't just looking for somebody who could play the guitar with a certain degree of finesse. He's not interested in people who know everything he does; he wants things to be fresh.

"All the stuff about Jeff being a 'tyrant' is hysterical to me. He's had some rough times and made some hard decisions, and some of that is unpleasant. But he's so un-tyrannical that I don't see him being a person who ever had a tyrannical personality at all."

SIDEBAR

Wilco guitarist Tweedy's influences

By George Varga

With nearly 130 albums to his credit, Wilco guitarist Jeff Tweedy is perpetually active. He's also a lifelong music fan with very eclectic tastes. Here's a look at two of his favorite artists:

PATTO - This four-man English band released three albums between 1970 and 1972, the best of which is 1971's classic "Hold Your Fire." The group's fusion of rock, blues, jazz, and country still sounds fresh. So does Patto's remarkably fleet and inventive guitarist, Ollie Halsall, whose devoted admirers includes Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, and ex-Ten Years After leader Alvin Lee (who has a cache of still-unreleased live recordings he made of Patto during a joint European tour in 1973). "Shake It Off," a song on Wilco's new album, pays homage to Patto, as does Nels Cline's spiraling solo on "Side With the Seeds."

DID YOU KNOW? Halsall, who died in 1992 at the age of 43, and ex-Patto drummer John Halsey were both members of The Rutles, the satirical Beatles-inspired band that made the classic 1978 TV movie "All You Need Is Cash."

CLINE: "One of the most remarkable things about me joining Wilco was finding out they liked Patto, too. The first two years I played with Wilco we'd walk on stage to Patto's (1970 song) 'I Saw the Man.' At least once a week I would say: 'I never would've believed it if anyone had told me I'd play shows in venues of this size and that we'd walk on stage to 'I Saw the Man.' But there are so many things in my life that make me feel like the luckiest man alive."

CHARLIE HADEN: One of the most notable bassists in modern jazz history, Haden rose to fame in the late 1950s as a member of saxophonist Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking quartet. His affiliation with Coleman continues to this day, although Haden has been a noted band leader in his own right for nearly 40 years and has made outstanding albums with such greats as Keith Jarrett, Stan Getz, and Pat Metheny. Cline regards his four years playing with Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra in the mid-1980s as a career highlight.

DID YOU KNOW? While jazz is his greatest musical love, Haden is no snob. His extensive credits include recording with Beck, blues harp dynamo James Cotton, actor-cum-singer Robert Downey Jr., and - in 1970 - John Lennon and Yoko Ono on their landmark "Plastic Ono Band."

CLINE: "I've had a lot of heavenly experiences. But working with Charlie, whom I idolized, is way up there. Unfortunately, I was only in my 20s then and what I played probably wasn't that fabulous. But his trust in me made me feel I could contribute on any level."
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