November 21, 2010
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
The Autumn Defense sounds like a product designed to prevent seasonal affective disorder, but it’s actually the sometime band of Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone. The musical partnership is not just a hobby either; the duo have been making albums since 2001, and with “Once Around” (Yep Roc), the newest, they have reached their fourth.
The new songs dominated a release show late Saturday at Lincoln Hall. Leading an ensemble that included bassist James Hagerty, drummer Greg Wieczorek and pedal steel guitarist John Piruccello, Stirratt and Sansone were able to expand upon the 1970s soft-rock template of their past and add textures and grit that the new songs demanded and gave the older ones an opportunity for deserved rediscovery.
So many of the songs written and co-written between both frontmen take aim, like snapshots, on frozen moments so they become metaphors for emotional duress. Birds, skies and pastoral settings dominate the imagery, which contributed to the mellow aftertaste of earlier songs.
The new songs, however, didn’t sit still for long. Played live, songs like “The Swallows of London Town” became the night’s greatest celebratory pop moment and “Back of My Mind” sounded vaguely psychedelic and possibly a leftover from George Harrison’s “All Things Must Past” opus, due to the melting slide guitar of Piruccello, often the night’s lynchpin. The attention to detail showcased the perfect craftsmanship of an older song, “Full 5 Paces” which, punching throughout the room, moved the crowd to dance.
What became evident during the 18-song set was how valuable both Sansone and Stirratt are as lead vocalists, a role their Wilco duties does not let them play. They shared harmonies during the quieter songs but singing apart, it became clear why both their voices provide the perfect counterpoint with the other. Playing guitar and keyboards, Sansone exhibited the urgent vocal phrasing of R&B, which were balanced against Stirratt’s higher octave vocals and soothing delivery.
Anyone with an ample record collection could track the influences shared between both songwriters but the night’s end provided the most direct clues. Joined by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Iron, the night’s openers, the band pit “Sentimental Lady,” the wistful A.M. radio nugget from Bob Welch, an early member of Fleetwood Mac, against “You Can’t Have Me,” one of Big Star’s most defiant rock moments. Taken back to back, the gentle need for intimacy was made complete by its raw rejection.