A Separate Peace

When Trip Shakespeare broke up, Matt Wilson marched off to war against his muse. Five years later, this exacting songwriter returns from the front with his first solo album.

This last statement exposes the misnomer that is the term "working musician." There are a few people in any city who might qualify as "working musicians" in that music provides their sole source of income. I'd guess the population is about 200 in the Twin Cities, if you include the orchestra bassoonist, and the top wedding accordion player, and the guy who lays down the triangle track below the Menards jingle. A much larger group exists, though, for whom the words working and musician are in constant competition, with each nibbling at the same clock.

Daniel Corrigan

When Trip Shakespeare broke up, Wilson crossed over from the charmed kind of working musician to the conflicted one, and I imagine it must strike him as a detour from what should have been his true life's course--a milestone passed in reverse. In the pre-Shakespearean era, Wilson sold books at Time-Life, where he proved a surprising boon for morale. "I was funny so they kept me around," he laughs. "I made a lot of loud phone calls to Canada under different pseudonyms. I was Gordon Sawchuck--that was a big one. My circles never moved across the [sales] board very much."

Today, Wilson works 36 hours a week in two coffee shops, one of them a Starbucks.

"Which Starbucks is it?" I ask.

Wilson hesitates to answer, and I instantly regret the question. What had I hoped to learn? Is one Starbucks substantially different from any other? And is Wilson eager to offer impromptu serenades to fans from behind the milk-frothing machine? The question is an affront to Wilson's pride, and I only recount the incident here because: (a) Wilson, a gentle soul, does not immediately pull the MC-60UR microcassette from my trusty Panasonic and braid a noose from the ferrous oxide-coated tape with which to lynch my insensitive ass, as would be his right; and (b) it speaks to the small compromises a man will make in order to avoid making the compromises that count.

And Wilson hardly needs to set a can in front of the cash register with his Planetmaker Records logo and the word Help on the front. He is, according to friends and acquaintances, an enterprising and canny fellow, and he notes with satisfaction that the manufacturing run of his new CD was financed by his recent producer's credit on the EP of a Washington, D.C., band called Magnet.

Wilson's strategy for Burnt, White and Blue involves releasing his album independently across the Midwest, between Chicago and Kansas City, while shopping the release to labels on the coasts. This procedure, however well-planned, seems the rough equivalent of conducting a public ritual to lure the idiot rock gods from the 808 area code where they anoint themselves at poolside with ablutions of absinthe and Bain de Soleil whilst half-naked Ivy League interns fan them with back issues of Billboard.

"If I had to predict what would happen," Wilson says, "I would say that I'll probably end up selling 3,000 CDs. And then it will either trickle off from there, or that will cause something good to happen and maybe it will get picked up by someone. I could see that happening. I mean, I don't know. I've done it before with the Trip Shakespeare albums."

"Just having the record out is a wonderful thing for me," he adds over the phone a few days later, while noting that he's already ordered a second pressing of 1,000 copies. And though he doesn't recite the Serenity Prayer, Wilson suggests that measuring the success of the project based on the whims of the market is not a tenable position. "To remain a musician you have to maintain these blind spots, because it's too painful to know about what goes on... I'm genuflecting on the earth right now just to have the record done."

Let's say that when Matt Wilson takes the stage at the 400 Bar the people in the audience cut the chatter and embrace their solemn audience duties--either to invest themselves in this experience or imbibe themselves into oblivion--and the smoke swirls like cirrus clouds along the waffled tin ceiling. Wilson strikes up his band of local rockers and the sound is joyous and raucous and cathartic. He launches into the first track of Burnt, White and Blue, then skips around, eventually playing the whole album. And the audience applauds as if they've always known these songs, as if they've mouthed along to these lyrics on the Stairmaster and harmonized the backup vocals doing karaoke. A sweat spot develops at the solar plexus where Wilson's Gibson rubs against his body, and over the course of the 90-minute set, the stain radiates outward as if from a gunshot entry wound. And the audience begins to imagine that he might be emitting energy right from that spot, bathing the room in sweet emotion.

That's one scenario of what happens at the 400 Bar.

Here's another. Let's say that Matt Wilson takes the stage and the packed room never quite reaches a tense hush. And instead, while Wilson plays the revealing songs off his new album, some part of the crowd near the bar keeps up a steady patter of nothing, a white noise chorus that competes with Wilson's vulnerable vocal timbre. The band is competent but unimpassioned. The applause is muted, reserved.

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