Minnesota's most beloved rock band sets out to reinvent itself--and discovers itself in the process

THERE'S A TALL, GREEN, HALF-naked man standing just off the side of Hwy. 169 between the Twin Cities and Mankato. The familiar billboard figure welcomes visitors to Le Sueur, a dullish stretch of verdant Minnesota known mainly as home to the Green Giant corporation. The town slogan is "Discover Country Living, City Style."

En route to see the Jayhawks play their first official homestate show since their much-touted overhaul, the line has some resonance. After losing frontman and professional nice guy Mark Olson in late '95, the group stepped back from the brink of breakup and took a long, hard look in the mirror. What they saw, according to co-leader-turned-leader Gary Louris, was a band that appeared "a little too squeaky-clean--which wasn't the kind of people we were, and wasn't the kind of music we listened to." Now, with a new lineup and a new record, they are perched between the pristine country rock of their previous albums and a determination to be a leaner, meaner, dirtier, artier, and altogether more urban rock & roll band. Essentially, they're in search of a new identity--a quest that, for bands in the prepackaged world of popular music, as well as for individuals on the psychiatrist's couch--is a fairly serious matter.

"ARE YOU READY TO ROCK AND ROOOOOOOOOLL?!" A paunchy local radio guy, red-faced from an excess of beer or sun or both, is working up the crowd at the People's Fair, Mankato's annual hippie-vibed spring blowout. The masses gathered on this perfect Saturday number more than 10,000--the largest ever in the outdoor festival's 27-year history--and most are sunburned and wasted after a long day of music and whatever. Still, when asked by the DJ if they are in fact ready to party their asses off, they cheer dutifully.

It's the last day of the Jayhawks' first tour with their new lineup, and after a seven-hour van ride from Kansas that got them into town just over an hour ago, they seem pretty wasted themselves. Still, the set is strong, and it declares their revised intentions from the get-go. Swaggering ever so slightly behind a vintage Flying V, Louris leads the band through three songs from the new Sound of Lies--first the crunchy "Think About It," then the woozy "Three Little Fishes" (introduced on record with a burbling bong), and the classic bubblegum flavor of "Big Star." You hear the differences in the group's sound: most notably, the twangy mountain harmonies that had defined the band's sound until now have been replaced with the edgy "woo-woos" of '70s AM radio, and the straightforward mix of soaring electric and stoic acoustic guitar has become a noisier, messier affair.

The latter is due in large part to new guitarist Kraig Johnson, dividing time between the 'hawks and the great Twin Cities rock band Run Westy Run. His Stonesy rhythm runs and heavy-reverb atmospherics darken the songs, as does the violin work of fellow newbie Jessy Greene. She is the most striking new element in the mix: Just recently separated from the country-punk train wreck of L.A.'s Geraldine Fibbers, she doesn't add the honky-tonk fiddle fills you'd expect in this context. Instead, her long, aggressive lines lean toward art-rock--sometimes mellifluous, sometimes pulling the songs off their melodic center, like the edge of a sunny acid trip threatening to go awry.

There's a visual difference in this year's model as well. To be blunt, the Jayhawks have lurched toward sexiness. It's most evident in the new members--Greene swaying in a hot black mini-skirt on black, stacked-heel boots; Johnson a prettier, higher-cheekboned Keith Richards in a V-neck white T-shirt, motorcycle wallet chain dangling provocatively off his hip. But the rest of the band is trying. The shirts are a bit louder; the collars are a little wider. Louris has cut his hippie curls to a more flattering, Gavin Rossdale-style bob. He and Grotberg have even been experimenting with different eyeglass frames.

The crowd, meanwhile, is unfazed. They respond enthusiastically to the new material, and wave their koozies to Grotberg's haunting cover of "Ode to Billie Joe," a hit for Bobbie Gentry years before most of them were born. Yet something shifts perceptively in the audience when the band launches into "Blue," the indelible almost-hit from Tomorrow the Green Grass. From behind the stage, you can see the same beautiful, blissed-out fan faces that the band sees: girls dancing together, boys singing along with their eyes closed and their arms raised high, some kid holding up a REV 105 T-shirt. It's a seductive moment that says a lot about how brave it is for a band to change its artistic track, and why so many lesser groups trundle forward year in and year out, playing the same crowd-pleasers over and over to imperceptibly diminishing responses, until someone suddenly realizes that everyone involved stopped caring ages ago.

The band encores with "V," a gospel-tinged romp from Down By the Old Mainstream by Golden Smog, the side project and undercover supergroup that has included Louris, Johnson, Jayhawks' bassist Marc Perlman, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Honeydogs' drummer Noah Levy, and Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy, who joins the Jayhawks onstage. Afterwards, mulling about the tent backstage, some kids corner Louris and ask for his autograph on scraps of paper. "Wow," he says, somewhere between sincerity and (I think) irony. "You're making me feel like a rock star."

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