It's quite a testament to a band known almost as much for its internal strife as its music when the musicians who come together to pay tribute talk about what a great time they had playing these songs with one another. A current of overt joy buoyed the crowd, where fans and musicians blended. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar may never reconcile, but they created a legacy in the tight-knit music community that includes their peers, musicians who were babies when Uncle Tupelo was around, and everyone in between.
Cree Rider's Acoustic Family started the night at Off Broadway with a collection mostly culled from the stripped and raw album "March 16-20, 1992." Bryan Ranney's delicate mandolin sprinkled light on Rider's rugged takes on "Coalminers" and "Sauget Wind" with Cheryl Wilson making her accordion debut. She took the lead on a diminutive and haunted "Black Eye." For their set-ending sing-along of "Atomic Power," Fred Friction accompanied them on spoons with Adam Andrews on washboard.
Fred continued unaccompanied and gritty on "Grindstone" and "John Hardy," of course ending with Uncle Tupelo rarity/Fred Friction theme song, "I Drink Stag," which he renamed "Route 159 Revisited," an appropriate nod to the highway that runs through Uncle Tupelo's hometown of Belleville, Ill.
The Dive Poets kicked up the rock side of Uncle Tupelo with a collection of fan favorites that honored the raucous punk spirit of their predecessors and nearly erased their country legacy through a guitar brawl on "Gun" and a hard-edged "There Was a Time" before effortlessly honing the country edge with Karl Eggers' banjo on "New Madrid."
The Trophy Mules grabbed the country-rock thread and ran with it, boosted by Scott Swartz on pedal steel for "Wipe the Clock." Lead singer Corey Saathoff aptly called "No Sense in Lovin'" "the first Wilco song." The band went rich and dense, continuing through "Effigy" straight into "The Long Cut" with well-balanced nods to both sides of Uncle Tupelo's country rock dynamic. Melody Den's Marc Chechik first introduced their guest pedal steel player -- Brad Sarno. For nearly 20 years Sarno's worked behind the scenes in creating gear for musicians far beyond St. Louis. Even if you don't know his name, you've probably heard his hand-built gear being used by Wilco's Nels Cline and Bob Weir. He's also mastered albums by Jay Farrar and most of the bands who played the tribute show.
"If we fuck it up, don't worry about it. It'll be just like at Cicero's," said Chechik before a decidedly non-fucked-up take on "Graveyard Shift" with the crowd singing and thrashing. They revived their introspective and hazy-dark version of "Screen Door" before jumping back into the thrashing fray with "Whiskey Bottle," sharing vocals with Jeff Griswold and Bob McKee of The Vondrukes.
While trumpets might not seem like a natural fit Americana, the Vondrukes made it work. Joe Padawan and Justin Ellis' horns mimicked the brightness of the Irish and Scottish instruments that are the backbone of country music, especially when paired with steel guitar and tight vocal harmonies on "Flatness." Seven high-energy musicians on stage, playing with frenetic punk energy created a complexity that four-piece Uncle Tupelo rarely touched, while maintaining a looseness that retained plenty of rough twang. They hit the apex with set-closer "Before I Break" with vocal harmonies that the originals never came close to hitting.
Grace Basement, with Sarno on pedal steel, took Uncle Tupelo's material into even more complex orchestrations, first by adding fiddle to "Still Be Around" and a pristine "Acuff-Rose" that rivaled Tweedy's acoustic rendition of the song at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium five years ago. The instrumental "Sandusky" went even further by adding a flute to the mix, along with two bouzoukis -- the round-bodied Greek lute whose plucked strings create an other-worldly shimmer over the undercurrent of pedal steel. A well-written song allows for such creative orchestration that leads to a song at its most beautiful.
Brothers Lazaroff's blended voc writing essay al harmonies over a lightly funked-up rhythm section on "Watch Me Fall" filled the dance floor, and "I Wanna Be Your Dog" kept the crowd dancing. They kept the song in the Uncle Tupelo vein with sped-up tempo, Grover Stewart's brushed drums, Teddy Brookin's big bass line and a subtle uplift from Mo Egeston's keyboards. Joined by Kevin Buckley on fiddle, they closed the night with "No Depression." It didn't matter that Sunday morning was nearly an hour away, they produced a church-worthy stomp and holler able to uni genres and generations of musicians in celebration of the living music history made in our backyard that continues to grow.
Cree Rider's Acoustic Family:
I Drink Stag
The Dive Poets:
I Got Drunk
Looking for a Way Out
The Trophy Mules:
Wipe the Clock
No Sense in Lovin'
The Long Cut
True to Life
Steal the Crumbs
Before I Break
Still Be Around
Watch Me Fall
I Wanna Be Your Dog