Birds On A Wire- THE JAYHAWKS

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

Jeff Tweedy is standing in the Jayhawks' dressing room at Chicago's Riviera theater, staring at his shoes. Everyone in attendance is staring at his shoes, too. They are impressive shoes: soles stacked three inches high, rainbow uppers like an old Fillmore light show. "I got 'em in San Francisco," he grins. "Where else?"

Tonight's shared bill, the first of a two-night stand, is a family reunion of sorts. Besides being friends, mutual fans, frequent touring partners, and occasional bandmates, the members of the Chicago-based Wilco and the Jayhawks are on somewhat parallel musical journeys. After leaving the sainted country-rock outfit Uncle Tupelo some years back, Tweedy assembled a group whose mission was in part to escape the piousness of the so-called "alternative country" movement that Uncle Tupelo helped birth (the scene's main chronicle, No Depression, is named after an early record by the band). Wilco's first record felt a bit tentative. But with last year's impressive Being There, they threw caution to the wind on a two-CD set that, for whatever it lacked in focus, was long on ambition and pretension and frazzled rock & roll vision. It was Art, and along with the shoes, it's working to bury their old image of bumpkin alt-country act for good.

The Jayhawks have a similar goal. Toward that end, Louris sweeps into the dressing room near showtime in an iridescent green suit made of an unidentifiable fiber, razor-sharp creases down the slacks. He also has a pair of boss, yellow-tinted specs he borrowed from a friend--though unfortunately, the prescription is a little off. "Where's Tweedy?" he demands, strutting his stuff. "He's got to see this." Clearly, there is a little competition going on tonight.

Although the bands have played together with Wilco as the warm-up act, tonight on Tweedy's home turf, the Jayhawks go first, beginning as usual with the knockout guitar chords and chiming vocals of "Think About It." It sounds great, noisier and looser than either their Mankato show the previous week or their spirited debut at Austin's South By Southwest festival back in March. Karen Grotberg's organ, which she favors over her piano for the new material, swells like a service in a psychedelic Baptist church; Marc Perlman's bass strolls around the room with a physical presence. Arrayed for the evening in a straight line, shoulder-to-shoulder, across the lip of the stage, with drummer/vocalist Tim O'Reagan holding down the rear, the players look and sound more like a unit tonight. Louris remains a low-key frontman, keeping the onstage banter to a minimum.

The set's defining moment comes when Perlman plunks out the opening notes to the new "Dying On the Vine." An oddly shaped number with noir guitar colors and a vaguely hip-hopish back-beat, its lyrics sketch an uncentered desperation, alluding to unspeakable acts, the fear of death, and the terror of emotional vulnerability. Like many of the songs on Sound of Lies, it can be read as a simple breakup song--and Louris, who has recently weathered the painful collapse of his marriage as well the split from longtime musical partner Mark Olson, has had plenty of reasons to pen those sorts of tunes. But when the band leans into the surprisingly anthemic chorus and the stage begins to elevate, you get a sense that the very fear they're singing about--a fear of change and possible failure, of a life spent chasing a dream that ends up dust--has become a sustaining force. They follow the song up with "Blue," and despite the wild crowd response, it sounds pale by comparison.

"We've got to get the sticks out of our asses when we play," declares Perlman downstairs in the dressing room afterwards. The most convincingly rock-starish of the original band members, he has snuck off to watch the Miami Heat struggling against the Bulls while, upstairs, Wilco is swaggering through a balls-out show complete with screamed vocals and drop-kneed feedback jams. I offer that the Jayhawks are looking better and looser onstage than ever, and suggest maybe that's enough. Certainly the band's songs, more finely constructed than Wilco's, are more about the pop-wise interplay of parts than sheer rock & roll force. Perlman considers this and returns to the game.

Sometime later, Wilco finishes its set with a cover of the Replacement's "Color Me Impressed"--Tweedy stage diving backwards near the end--and heads downstairs to exchange sweaty hugs with their friends. Wilco's bassist tells Louris the set was the best Jayhawks show he's ever seen. Louris thanks him, but after Wilco's high-impact set, he looks a little deflated. Eventually, the throng of musicians drifts off together toward the nearby Green Mill Bar--Tweedy, a new father, excepted.

"Wilco's been doing it for a while," Louris says the following afternoon, drinking coffee in the sun on Clark and Diversey. "We're basically 19 shows into our new career, and I'm still getting comfortable, still figuring out what I want to be up there. And I think I'm finding that I want to be who I am--which is probably not somebody who's gonna be jumping up and down." He pauses and sips his latte. "There's power in that kind of persona too, I think."

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