Jay Bennett, a multi-instrumentalist songwriter and session musician best known for his seven year tenure as a member of Wilco, stopped at the Middle East Upstairs last night in support of his latest solo record The Magnificent Defeat (Rycodisc). It was the last night of his East Coast tour. So maybe it was fatigue. Maybe it was the muddy sound in the room. Maybe it was the energy of the audience. But Bennett didn’t own it.
The set began with a solo Bennett, who made his studio album debut on Wilco’s Being There, playing a series of slow numbers. The songs, if predictable, revealed glimpses of his smart songcraft, with a sound like Closing Time-era Tom Waits singing over the loose, murky guitar of Nirvana’s In Utero. Between songs, Bennett talked to the crowd with the confidence of a first-timer at open mic night. He was affable, sure, but nervous, too. Which came as a surprise — he’s got the chops and the experience to go up on stage and make it his show, but last night it seemed that he was unsure if he should've been up there at all. Bennett mentioned to me after the show that he has a history of tough luck playing the room.
Death Ships, the opening/supporting act from Iowa City, joined Bennett onstage for the second set. Despite the crude sound, the show picked momentum, and Bennett seemed much more at ease among a group. They launched into a blend of pop, rock, and country — country in the sense of the Jayhawks as opposed to the formulaic junk that congeals under a ten-gallon hat. The best way to describe their sound? It was kinda like . . . Wilco. Which makes sense, considering Bennett had a fair amount to do with the development of the band’s sound. He began with them in ’96, and left the band after the final sessions of the critically acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
But whereas Wilco has moved towards a more sonically experimental realm, Bennett focuses on writing and performing straight-ahead rock music, complete with keyboard simulated classic B3 effects and saturated tube distortion. Songs like “5th Grade” and “Replace You” (co written with friend and remaining Wilco member John Stirrat) demonstrate a strong melodic sense. It can be argued that his latest album contains some qualities that Wilco’s recent albums lack.