Birds On A Wire- THE JAYHAWKS

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."

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."

Louris speaks with a lot of qualifiers--"maybe," "probably," "I think," "I guess." He's a careful guy, friendly but not wide open, pleasant but with a bit of a dark cloud about him, easy-going but, as far as I can tell, not exceptionally spontaneous. In sum, very Minnesotan. In college he studied to be an architect, which makes sense--you can hear his taste for precision in his song structures and his guitar leads, which are exquisite but unvarying from night to night. It's this rigidness that, he feels, he was looking to undo somewhat with the new record, writing songs in the studio with bandmates rather than alone in his room, encouraging each other to experiment and "think Art," and exploring ways that alcohol can be used in the recording process besides cleaning tape heads.

Still, the strength of Sound of Lies, as well as the recent shows, has been this tension between the band the Jayhawks are and the band they want to be. In most ways, they still sound like the Jayhawks--just an edgier, moodier, less certain version of them. Some people, including critics, have a problem with that. But for a band whose critical response often seemed an echo of their own brand of Minnesota Nice, the response has been sobering. "We basically got the same review for 10 years--'Like a field of wildflowers after a spring shower.' It began sounding like a douche commercial," Louris carps. "Now, the negative reviews have been kinda fun to read. But people on the road have been really great and supportive. Most say they love the new record--I only had a couple people say they prefer the old stuff."

There is a thrill and a promise in all things new--new jobs, new lovers, new friends. Louris is currently flush with all of the above. And one might guess his life is something of an emotional roller coaster. For one thing, the band lineup is solid but not set in stone. Both Greene and Johnson are "temporary-permanent" members of the group, committed to other projects as well as the Jayhawks. There have yet to be any major career conflicts. But depending on how things develop, there may be. Furthermore, the crowds on some stops of their tour could have been better. Their label, American, is going through another round of "restructuring." Stardom beckons, and as Louris confesses, self-doubt threatens.

"Sometimes," he says, wrestling with a question about the band's future, "if you're not achieving a certain level of success, you ask yourself, 'Am I not good enough?' Or, 'Am I too good?'" The bustle on Clark Street has gotten louder and more chaotic; a truckdriver is leaning on his horn and yelling something indecipherable to a passerby. But for the moment, Louris, slumped back in his chair, seems comfortable with the uncertainty swirling around him. "For a band that's been together 12 years, it's like our blood is flowing," he says. "I still think we have something to prove. We haven't made a record we want to go to our graves with yet."

The Jayhawks perform Sunday, July 6 at the Taste of Minnesota in St. Paul.

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