In 2004, Nels Cline had been a musician since he started a band with his brother as a 12-year-old.
For the most part, it had been great. He had worked with musicians he admired, such as Mike Watt, Charlie Haden, Willie Nelson, Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono, and Stephen Perkins. Cline was able to divide his time between rock and jazz projects. He even led the Nels Cline Singers and Nels Cline Trio.
But as he neared 50, there was one thing that wasn’t great. Cline had never made much money.
"I had been offered a few things that would have saved me from financial ruin," Cline said from Portugal in a Tribune interview. "The other things weren’t interesting."
So it was fortuitous that Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy remembered Cline, who with his former band Geraldine Fibbers had once opened for Tweedy’s side project Golden Smog.
Tweedy asked Cline to join Wilco, which at the time had just finished recording "A Ghost is Born," a brilliant alt-rock album that further signaled that Wilco was no longer the country-rock band it had been when it was began in 1994 amid the ashes of Uncle Tupelo.
At the time, the Chicago-based Wilco was becoming one of the must-see bands on the festival and tour circuit, a stature that has continued to flower.
"I thought [Wilco] would be friendly, fairly open-ended, and interesting," Cline said of the offer.
With Wilco still pushing boundaries, seen as one of America’s most relevant rock bands, and headlining a sold-out Red Butte Garden Monday, Cline is still interested.
After performing on the 2005 live album "Kicking Television: Live in Chicago" and then 2007’s "Sky Blue Sky" and 2009’s "Wilco (The Album)," Cline is with Wilco as they tour behind 2011’s "The Whole Love." The album, which received a Best Rock Album nomination at the most recent Grammy Awards, again shows how Cline is Wilco’s secret weapon — never overplaying, but adding shades and textures and accents to each of the songs’ shifting styles.
The husky-voiced Tweedy, 44, is the sole songwriter for Wilco’s songs, which is a departure but not a disappointment to Cline. "I like having a leader," Cline said, adding that there is a "certain level of consensus [building] and collective thinking" when the skeletons of the album became fully fleshed out.
With "The Whole Love," despite Tweey receiving the only songwriting credits, the sessions were the most collaborative yet, Cline said. Whereas "Wilco (The Album)" featured Cline performing many overdubs, the new album was recorded much more like the sessions of "Sky Blue Sky," with live takes rather than each member adding their parts piece-meal. In a another cue that Wilco was a band rather than Tweedy and some hired hands, co-producing credit was given for the first time to a member of the band aside from Tweedy: multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.
But Cline was quick to point out that Wilco’s albums don’t define them. "We think of the band as a live touring band," He said.
Opening for Wilco is Blitzen Trapper, a Portland, Oregon-based progressive country-rock folk band led by Eric Earley. In an interview with The Tribune, Earley said his first concert was when his father took him to see the late Doc Watson at a bluegrass festival. But growing up in unassuming Salem, Oregon was uneventful, with occasional appearances by Def Leppard at the country fair. It wasn’t until he discovered what was then called "college rock" that his creative imagination expanded. "
"In high school I was really into R.E.M.," said Earley, referencing the albums "Document and "Green." "Then I really got into The Replacements. ‘All Shook Down’ came out when I was a freshman. That album was what Wilco sounded like — country-rock."
Not anymore. And it hasn’t hurt Wilco’s cred, or pocketbook, one bit.
Wilco with Blitzen Trapper
When • Monday, June 25 at 7 p.m.
Where • Red Butte Garden, 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Sold out
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