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.

Why do we still do it? Why do we leave our tidy quarters and private corners to stand rib-to-rib in a Marlboro smokehouse? Why does the P.A. system always play the Replacements' "Unsatisfied" between sets? What correlation does this have with our frequent dissatisfaction at show's close? How many fleeting pupil-locks can you make with the PYT across the room before flirtation becomes lechery? Whose hand is that on my thigh? Why does the squat frat boy always try to carry n +1 beers, with n representing a whole number equivalent to the digits he can manageably drape into sudsy plastic cups and +1 representing the beer which I end up wearing?

Cutting to the chase: Where is the fucking band?

Enter Matt Wilson, drummer, guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and one-quarter of the late, great Trip Shakespeare--or to put the case in the present tense, 100 percent of the new Matt Wilson.

Daniel Corrigan

G., who knows everything, says that since the band broke up in 1993, Matt Wilson has been a lost soul. G. says that Wilson's new album, Burnt, White and Blue, has been five years coming. G. says that Wilson has musical standards that no one can meet--including himself--and that his perfectionism has been crippling. G. says that his voice is delicate and raw. G. says that he needs to wash his hair more often.

G. says that when he used to play with Trip Shakespeare--alongside his older brother Dan, the two-meter-tall bassist John Munson, and the stand-up drummer Elaine Harris--the stage would emanate exuberance and that the concerts have a luminous half-life in her memory. G. says that Trip Shakespeare was the answer to the question of why we still do it--why we come to see bands, and what they give us in exchange for the stiff-limbed discomfort and the respiratory distress and the gropes and the jostling and the beery humidity of bodies.

On the night of April 4, a Saturday, I go to the 400 Bar to watch Matt Wilson play--to see if the rumors, any or all of them, are true.

Trip Shakespeare formed as a three-piece in Minneapolis in 1986, and they played at the best-new-band showcase at the Entry that year on the same bill as the Blue Up?, Run Westy Run, the Gear Daddies, and TVBC. After Trip Shakespeare self-released two albums, A&M Records signed the band and spent about half a million dollars in the studio creating Across the Universe and Lulu, which, combined, sold roughly 70,000 copies. The label dropped Trip Shakespeare in 1993 while they were completing an EP of cover tunes, their final album. The band subsequently went on a six-month hiatus after which they permanently dissolved. Trip Shakespeare played approximately 450 live shows in their seven-year existence, and many of them were received enthusiastically. None of the band's albums is currently in print and in some empirical sense Trip Shakespeare has ceased to exist.

That's one version of the story of Trip Shakespeare, and it has to its advantage both accuracy and concision--virtues that I consider overrated. For the band obituary is a bloodless creation, a generic tale with 10,000 unknown names and 100 interchangeable cities. If you don't own any of Trip Shakespeare's five out-of-print albums and you failed to attend one of the approximately 450 shows, there might be no point now in trying to convince you of what was lost. Because, really, there's too much loss in the here and now to wallow in nostalgia like some emotional dilettante.

But if you would wallow with me--I'm a pro at it, you'll see--we might try to conjure the splendor of Trip Shakespeare's songs, songs celebrating snow days, magical pants, charmed guitars, dependable cars, and the redemptive powers of music. Laments about girlfriends, girlfriends becoming ex-girlfriends, and ex-girlfriends who with the right words and luck may yet become girlfriends once more.

Wallow with me as I recount the brave desperation of "The Crane" off Across the Universe, the defiant yawp of a boy and his wheels: "When the dogs of the bank are upon me/And they've come to repossess my car/I'll be found at the base of the canyon/I'll be torn from the wreck of the motor." The sentiment is Springsteen, no mistaking it, but the song is bereft of macho bluster. For better and worse, this is no E Street Band; the vocals are too pretty, the harmonies too ornate.

The same is true of "Drummer Like Me"--a musician's siren song to a wary woman ("You've been living with your mom/That's living to me")--which replaces the balls-out ebullience of Springsteen's "Rosalita" with an appealing, honest reticence: "Got a friend with a drum machine/He's got rhythm and taste/Says I live in the '70s/And I can be replaced." Unlike "Rosalita," there's no label-signing at the end of this tune; instead, the drummer quietly concedes, "You could lose your luck with a drummer like me."

For a time, Trip Shakespeare were the poet laureates of the unlucky (and the self-made luckless). The band cast its narrative sympathies with the drunk at the wedding who watches his former girlfriend walk down the aisle ("Reception"); or the pickup driver who turns his four-wheeler over to hauling jobs ("Two Wheeler, Four Wheeler"); or the boyfriend who helps move his estranged girlfriend out of their shared apartment ("Today You Move")--only to try to wheedle his way into the new one at the end of the song.

All of which might sound fairly mopey--the kind of mournful hand-wringing that a few playground beatings should have put an end to in childhood. But the music is exultant, goofy, giddy. Trip Shakespeare were fervent believers in falsetto and the false ending, and the operatic interlude.

In the world of Trip Shakespeare, history is written by a kind of triumphant loser. (And now, completing the circle, I am the author of their history.)

Indulge me, if you would, the following exercise. As I strained for some 139-plus minutes writing the preceding sentence--it is a grand one, no?--I availed myself of the opportunity to devote some special time to staring in one of the five mirrors that hang in the foyer. And once I was standing there, really in the zone, as they say, of some high-quality procrastination, I began to consider what kind of dolt needs 139 (plus) minutes to write an eight-word sentence. Let me answer that question by telling you what I saw in the mirror.

I saw an outsized nose--call it a de Bergerac--of such bridge width and nostril depth as to resemble the Before shot in a rhinoplasty catalog. I saw pores the size of mosquito netting. I saw eyes so near-set (is it my Semitic heritage?) that the lashes could tangle in a blinking accident. I saw the patches along the coronal suture between the frontal and parietal bones where I used to see hair, but no longer do. I could go on--the floppy ear; the indications of gigantism (i.e., "Abe Lincoln syndrome"); the hard spot behind my right nipple that a wheezing pediatrician once identified as a calcium deposit but which I attribute in my darker moments to a male mammary tumor--I could go on, but this newspaper, though frequently found on bathroom floors, does not come with an air-sickness-bag insert, and so I won't.

Do I feel better for having confessed all this to you? No. And would it not compound the embarrassment to reveal that I've written this same paragraph--give or take a podiatric abnormality--into other articles, other stories? Yes, I'm the kind of guy who takes perverse pleasure in humiliating himself for the amusement of people he's never met (who now have no pressing desire to effect a face-to-face audience).

What I'm trying to communicate is that self-consciousness is a compelling thing. It's a muse, really, but a muse that proves much harder to harness than its distant cousin, narcissism. And I believe Matt Wilson knows more about self-consciousness than I do. In fact, I feel a bit self-conscious comparing my situation to the great wars of attrition he's conducted with this shifty vice and sometime inspiration. When Wilson wins, he taps into the elusive "truth," his real voice; when he loses, he undergoes a complete creative dissolution.

"In the big picture I wanted to get rid of a lot of the old habits," Wilson says of the exhaustive efforts that went into creating Burnt, White and Blue. "One obvious one was the boy-girl romance stuff. That's a mode I used a lot early on in my songwriting to kind of elevate myself. I would do a lot of 'I'm a Bad Guy' songs: 'I'm gonna ramble on you and I'm gonna gamble on you.' Threatening how tough or mean or insensitive I am.

"These were habits that I picked up as a mode of being a songwriter without being vulnerable. It was a way to be rockin' and kick ass. And I had to let that go because it was dishonest. This sounds overly '90s sensitive p.c., but I started to feel very guilty about the positions I was putting the female characters in my songs in. Almost always they would stand for the weak, despicable aspect of myself. I'd sit there and I'd put up this fake female person and then I'd just put 'em down. And what I was actually doing was saying that I hate this part of Matt--and that way I could still be the tough guy. The hard-rockin' guy."

And so while 90 percent of the songwriters in the country were checking their rhyming dictionaries to learn if "girl" is a good match for "world," Wilson was holed up in his practice space excoriating himself for the same lyrical tropes that had made him successful in the first place. A little self-knowledge is a dangerous thing. A lot of self-knowledge is debilitating. And to some extent, it was this same exactitude--the excesses of the editor who does his job too well--that contributed to the demise of Trip Shakespeare.

"It's a real fault of mine," Wilson says, "and I know that Dan and John don't have this. But sometimes it is painful for me. Sometimes I get severely embarrassed by things in the past that I've done, and I just can't let it go.

"The arrangement [in Trip Shakespeare] was that I was writing the words and then Dan and I would write the music with whomever else. And that worked really well. But near the end, after Lulu, I started having those feelings that maybe my whole approach was wrong. And I started to feel guilty about the dishonesty. It was nothing criminal--not criminal dishonesty. I was just obsessed with being a songwriter, and it was so important to me. I would go up on stage and have these glorious nights, strutting around in my rooster style, but I wasn't really proud of what I was putting across. And I started to melt down.

"I kept trying to write with the same kind of ferocious attention, shutting myself in and writing conscientiously. But the stuff I would come up with would be crippled. Anyone would listen to it and see that it wasn't happening.

"And simultaneous to that, but not in response to that, Dan, who has always been very verbal and always kept a journal--he was starting to emerge from the rule that I wrote the words. He was starting to write songs. And eventually he and John and Jake [Slichter] started having this side project that Dan's songs would go into. And then Dan became very prolific. Like out of nowhere, all of a sudden. And he was putting some songs into Trip Shakespeare that we were playing.

"And they were good. They had his usual musical flair. The kind of fully formed how did you come up with that. They sounded like they were born in B.C., like they'd been written by God in a time forgotten. They had that usual thing, but they also had these words. And the words--they were like Semisonic words. They were really great in their own way. But they weren't really quite as well-formed...he keeps improving. And they didn't fit where I wanted to go. They weren't...umm...I didn't write them. And it was a big problem."

At this point a tangent seems to be in order: an update on the fate of Dan Wilson and John Munson's one-time side project, Semisonic, and the seeming inevitability of the commercial success of their second album on MCA Records, Feeling Strangely Fine.

The story begins when the album's first single, "Closing Time," goes into heavy rotation on the Los Angeles radio station KROQ. Subsequently, the night before I visit Matt Wilson in the South Minneapolis apartment he shares with Munson, Semisonic appears on the syndicated radio sex-advice show Loveline, featuring hosts Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla. Four days later the band delivers a somewhat jittery performance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, hosted by Andy Richter and Conan O'Brien (who, coincidentally, is a college acquaintance of Matt's).

Originally I had intended to feature Semisonic, and particularly Dan Wilson, quite prominently in this story. To that effect, I called MCA Records publicity representative Christine Wolff, who grilled me for 10 minutes about my intentions re: the potential scope and ambitions of this article; my inclination to include the history of Trip Shakespeare in the article; whether or not I had interviewed Matt Wilson and the topics raised in that interview; the other planned features in issue 907 of City Pages; and any number of topics related to what utility the article and City Pages might have for Semisonic as a breaking national act receiving heavy rotation on Los Angeles's KROQ and many other modern-rock-formatted stations.

Christine Wolff was fast on her feet and she was assertive. If I were Semisonic there is no doubt but that I would want her on my team. That said, for the next five days she would neither accept nor return my calls. When we finally spoke again a week later she explained that no one in Semisonic would be able to provide an interview for the article, and that the band had spent the preceding two days in the MTV studios recording an upcoming segment for the 120 Minutes program, hosted by the famously huggable Matt Pinfield. She said that Semisonic's first single, "Closing Time," had been added to the recently resuscitated MTV "Buzz Clips" and would be climbing from #3 to #2 on the Billboard modern-rock charts in the coming week. She said that Feeling Strangely Fine had sold 25K copies, as certified by Soundscan, since the album's release at the beginning of the month, and had reached #20 on a Billboard chart called "mainstream"--a format which I pretended to recognize. She said that it looked like Semisonic might be a hit, and I congratulated her, and by mutual assent the call was terminated.

The truth is that Christine Wolff had done me a favor. Sometime around my third or fourth call I had found myself beginning to hope that Semisonic would refuse the interview--or, as might have actually transpired, that she would do it for them. See, I had planned on writing an article about dueling ambitions and fraternal jealousies and the toll that success has taken. It was to be a moving article, all right, full of artistic differences and broken loyalties and frustrations and resentments. Maybe a pitched grudge or two. And to these ends, there is a pad on the side of my bed where late one night while listening to Lulu I scribbled the line, "I believe that Cain got a raw deal." I'll continue to stand by that assertion as a piece of Biblical interpretation, but as a framework for an article it now seems more than a bit prejudicial.

Though I'd informed Christine Wolff that I had only the noblest of intentions--I told her that the Brothers Wilson article (and that's what she called it, too) would be no opportunistic quickie--I began to have doubts about my ability to summarize the situation with any measure of truth.

Matt Wilson is 35 years old; Dan is 37. They have played together in a handful of bands for nearly 20 years--the Seal Beaters, the Love Monsters, Animal Dance, Trip Shakespeare--and they each play on the other's latest album. And I assume that they have made each other better musicians more times than they can count and also driven each other to the limits of their tolerance--and then past that.

Matt Wilson called a couple of days after our first interview to add a few comments about the end of Trip Shakespeare and the beginning of Semisonic. He said that the situation was "achingly complex" and that while he'd initially been envious--and had made no attempt to dissemble that envy--he'd also felt an enormous pride upon hearing Semisonic's songs on the radio.

A lot of things happen between brothers and I am sure that the Wilsons are no exception. Ultimately, with the moral guidance of Christine Wolff, I like to imagine the two as teenagers in their basement in St. Louis Park, Dan on guitar, Matt on drums. They are pale and slight--paler and slighter than they are now--and they're making a lot of noise. They've got two or three tape recorders jerry-rigged into a makeshift 4-track, and they're laying down tracks that Matt compares to a primitive Chick Corea.

"It was a pretty big deal to rig things together and mic things up," Matt remembers. "It was incredibly exciting and revelatory. This just obliterated every other interest. I couldn't write songs, really. I just played drums. But the fact that Dan could write songs and come up with chords and melodies--it was like he had the key to some magic thing."

Burnt, White and Blue, to the best of my reckoning, is an album about the risks of losing one's direction, and I don't believe that Matt Wilson would bristle to hear it called abstractly autobiographical. (At the same time, the album's very existence is a tribute to its creator having successfully coped with the trials it describes.) Though Wilson has shed his more ornamental arrangements--there is nothing goofy about the album--the songs are tuneful and handsomely crafted. Put plainly, the thing sounds damn good.

True to his word, Wilson has pared the boy-girl stuff down to a single song. So too, he has for the most part shed narrative lyrics for elliptical and imagistic ones, which I am not convinced is an improvement. Isolated lines pop out of certain songs: "Lost in my hate while I wait for the up to taste imitation," in the first track, "Sun Is Coming." Or from the second song, "Searchers": "Feels like motion sensing lights/Reveal my case/Review my clothes/My fucked-up face/Now I think I want to change my place." Now I don't know exactly what those lines mean, but I don't believe they're slogans for the new poster line at Successories. One detail that might help establish the emotional tenor of the album is the musician credit listed for "abyss noises."

Wilson's voice has dropped and thickened a little over the past few years; he sounds more adult now. And this effect makes Wilson's seeming withdrawal into his own painful world more disconcerting to listen to at the same time as it probably marks this work as a genuine hunk of art--an adolescent kind of self-involvement being one of the surest hallmarks of a real artist.

The standout on the album is the song "Deep All the Way Down," a musician's tale of creative bankruptcy. The strumming is lazy, relaxed; the flat, pretty melody has all the urgency of an Eagles tune. But the lyrics describe a state of near-desperation: "Paralyzed on the music-hall floor/And I smile at the sages at the box-office door/I should want to deliver my sound/But I fear there is nothing in my deep all the way down."

In the second verse, the singer awakens to the sight of the devil penning songs in his notebook. Embodied here are the temptations of insincerity, compromise, cowardice; and the only other option available is to sink deeper into the void of self-doubt, the "nothing" in his "true to the life, deep in the dark core."

It's a hard, affecting song, and a great one, too. But the chorus may stand out most of all. Here, Wilson slips into his falsetto, and this time it sounds sharp and immediate. "Half of this song I stole from a stranger," he sings. "Half of this song I made in my head."

I think I know whom he stole it from: This power-pop melody is a dead ringer for the work of Alex Chilton and Big Star.

Alex Chilton is best remembered as the 16-year-old singer of the Box Tops hit "The Letter"--though I just realized that I'm speaking about Chilton as if he's dead, which technically he is not. Manipulated by the songwriter and producer Dan Penn (who also wrote such soul classics as "Do Right Woman" and "I'm Your Puppet"), Chilton rebelled after a few years against his so-called "band" of studio pros.

After an abortive solo project, Chilton joined up with a group of young Anglophiles in Ardent studios in Memphis. Comprising Chris Bell on vocals and guitar, Jody Stephens on drums, and Andy Hummel on bass, the band called itself Big Star. It was to prove an ironic title, a bitter joke at Chilton's expense. As would the unfortunate title of their first release, #1 Record. For though the album contained some of the most gorgeous rock songs of the era--bright, propulsive, irresistible tunes--this 1973 release would never reach #1--or #100. Chris Bell left the band before the second album, Radio City; when he died in a car crash a few years later, his obituary in the local Memphis paper identified him only as the son of a prominent restaurateur.

Feeling betrayed by his record label and the empty rewards of critical praise, Chilton began work on an album called 3rd/Sister Lovers, which he would never entirely finish. The tight craft of the earlier albums has dissipated here; Chilton himself has dissipated. This fact is audible in every druggy, disjointed song, in every weird guitar bark and arrhythmic vocal hiccup. Chilton had tried to earn success on the music industry's corrupt terms with the Box Tops; and he'd poured all his talents into the first two Big Star albums to no avail. 3rd would be a record created entirely on his terms, a masterpiece for the remainder bins. When the head of Ardent, John Fry, suggested that one of the songs might be releasable as a single, Chilton went back to the studio and re-recorded the drum track on a deflated basketball. It is, in sum, a haunting album, the intoxicating distillation of sour grapes.

Alex Chilton is both a hero to musicians for his influential sound and singular will and also something of a cautionary tale: For over a decade now, Chilton has styled himself as a troubadour, touring college towns performing cover versions of "Volare." ("I never thought of myself as being a good songwriter," Chilton told Guitar Player magazine in 1994, continuing to call his early efforts "half-baked and not very well crafted.") Since the '80s, his contempt for the industry has crossed over into a contempt for his audience--which is perhaps the only real offense possible in music. It is said that there are few who have squandered their talent as completely as Chilton: Not for nothing, perhaps, was his last album titled A Man Called Destruction.

Which brings us back to "Deep All the Way Down" and Matt Wilson, who reports that the only fan letter he ever wrote was addressed to Chilton. Not a letter, actually, but a tape, recorded with his freshman-year roommate in a dormitory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I don't think we ever sent it but it was pretty important to us to make it anyway," Wilson says. "We were just telling him about how important he was to us, and what we thought of his music, and that we understood that he was a sad, time-torn man and that we could relate...

"How can you go from that 'Femme Fatale' or 'Back of a Car' to 'Volare'? I think that's one of the things we were asking him on the tape. I think we were begging him to try to get back in touch with what was beautiful. We were trying to tell him about the songs that we loved in order to try to encourage him to be that and find that."

Does every songwriter hate the songs of her past? If a single is lucky enough to hit the charts, then the musician will have to wear it like a hair shirt from that day forth. While he yearns to slip into something more comfortable, the hit song must be replaced before it will go away.

And if the song never reaches its audience--and the size of this imagined audience is probably always about twice the number of actual sales, whatever that is--well, this fate is crueler still. Compare the phenomenon here to James O. Incandenza's theory of orgasms in the David Foster Wallace novel Infinite Jest. Incandenza believes that there are a fixed and finite number of orgasms in the world and that each one he enjoys depletes the global supply, denying some anonymous sheepherder in New Zealand his moment of zeal. The concept is not conducive to Incandenza's sexual productivity; in fact, it nearly paralyzes him, sending him first to drink and then suicide.

So what if you're Matt Wilson and you've written maybe a half dozen of the prettiest songs of the decade, and you've seen them commercially relegated to some Island of Lost Toys?

I am not surprised to learn, then, that Wilson seldom listens to his earlier recordings--albums that have established residency in my car's tape deck for months on end. Maybe it's the Incandenza factor or perhaps just acute self-consciousness. And there is a great and rich sadness to hear of the tracks that Wilson can take pleasure from after a hard-fought détente with some industrious inner demons. (None of the tracks Wilson mentions features his vocals, which is surely no coincidence.)

"On Across the Universe there's a moment on the song 'Late' when I think some real truth comes out, and I'm deeply proud of it," Wilson says. "And the song 'Spirit Comes to Heaven' on Are You Shakespearienced? moves me and makes my spine tingle. I can make a program on the CD player with about half of Lulu so that it sounds great to me.

"The reason I talk about Lulu is because I put it on about a week ago. And I felt a lot of affection and some sweetness about it. But prior to that it had probably been four years or something. And I haven't heard Applehead Man [Trip Shakespeare's first release] in a lot longer than that. There's just no time. It's silly: I don't know where these 'musical slacker rockers' get their time, because I just don't have any."

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.

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.

And the night passes. The lights come on and people conduct exaggerated rituals of squinting and groping for keys, and Wilson returns to the road, as the opening act for the Violent Femmes: to Louisville, to Elkhart, to Indianapolis, where he plays on the top floor of a mall with a mosh pit at the front of the room and "some kind of breast policy" for the waitstaff.

I won't reconcile these two versions of the same event: He plays again at the 400 Bar on April 30, and I suggest you go find out for yourself.

But I will say that I do not believe for a minute that Wilson has lost his way (nor would it ultimately be my place to judge that). As proof, I offer "Deep All the Way Down," a scorched-earth search for what is honest and good in music. The writer of this song bears more than a passing resemblance to the 19-year-old who felt some immediate need to testify to Alex Chilton's contribution--to put the truth on tape, whether or not Chilton would believe it.

You can do the same. Wilson's address at Planetmaker Records is P.O. Box 8633, Mpls., MN 55408.

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