Jay Bennett’s Big Night Out

September 16, Schubas, Chicago IL (opening for Allison Moorer)

By Phil Wise

Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy casts a long shadow. His former songwriting partner in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar, is still living with comparisons some seven years after the two parted ways. Now, just weeks after announcing his split from Wilco, guitarist/songwriter/keyboardist Jay Bennett presented a set of ten songs in 30 minutes ranging in style from Elvis Costello-inspired pop to goofy country bumpkin sing-alongs.

Nursing a severely cut finger, Bennett enlisted the help of fellow Chicago scenester, Edward Burch (playing the very same Epiphone guitar featured on the cover of Wilco’s sophomore release Being There), to accompany on guitar and vocals. The two meshed onstage together like a partnership should with Burch providing not only levity in his stage banter, but inspiring vocal harmonies pulled straight from the Paul McCartney playbook. It made for the most musically rewarding half-hour I’ve experienced in ages.

Debuting selected cuts from his someday-to-be-released solo album (some three years in the making), Bennett and Burch ambled through a set peppered with bitter sweet love songs, the best of which was “Mirror Ball,” co-written with Bennett’s friend Sherry Rich. Bennett made several cracks about his Wurlitzer electric piano sounding too “Billy Joel,” but the stark accompaniment provided startling renditions of these soulful and melodic songs.

But it wasn’t all kisses and tears. Bennett and Burch also played a rousing rendition of the Woody Guthrie-penned “They’ll Be No Church Tonight,” presumably from the Mermaid Avenue sessions, and a rambling country knee-slapper “Watching Junior Drive,” which brought a rousing applause and caused Bennett to quip, “It’s always weird when the stupidest song you’ve ever written gets the biggest applause.” Bennett struggled honorably through the flat picking of the latter with his injured finger and still managed to amaze me with his playing.

Though never prominently featured on a Wilco recording, Bennett’s vocals were surprisingly strong and soulful. His voice is low and gravelly, sounding a bit like Elvis Costello doing his best Leonard Cohen impersonation. And while his voice may not be as distinct as Tweedy’s (ah, so the comparisons begin), it’s strong and possesses its own quality.

Jay Bennett was a key player in the evolution of Wilco’s sound and instrumental in the songwriting as evidenced by the credits from Being There through to the anxiously awaited Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and I was sorely disappointed to hear of his departure from the band. While I was confident Jeff Tweedy would carry on and continue to create great music, I was afraid Bennett would slip away into the darkness and the wake left by Wilco’s front man. After last night’s performance I think it’s safe to say that I’ll not soon lose track of Jay Bennett as long as he’s willing to step out of the shadows.

Missed this show? Catch Jay Bennett and Edward Burch at The Hideout in Chicago, September 24.

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